Introduction to DAC Reviews

External DACS (digital-to-analog converters) first came into vogue a number of years ago as a way to enhance the playback quality of the humble CD player. The rationale being that if you separated the components that converted all those “ones and zeros” into music, lavished some additional resources and attention to its design, you could tangibly improve the ultimate sound quality of your digital source player.

Today the “digital source” has broadened to include home computers, laptops, cell phones, networked digital media players, and more. Also storage space on modern devices, being as plentiful as it is, no longer limits us to lossy music file formats like MP3. Bit-perfect digital music reproduction can be had virtually anywhere and, to achieve that end, there are a plethora of modern DACs available. Most DACS are still strictly two-channel affairs but there are a few multi-channel units on the market geared for home theater use as well. They truly do come in all manner of sizes and price points, with interfaces like SPDIF, Toslink, AES, USB and even HDMI that suit most conceivable applications. Some DACs even have room and speaker correction capabilities as well as volume controls, so they can act as preamplifiers too.

Through listening and measurements, our reviews can help you sort through the best of what’s available in DACs and, hopefully, guide you to a choice that will fit your needs and be musically satisfying.

DACs

Arcam rPac Headphone DAC/Amp and rBlink Bluetooth DAC

Everywhere you look established specialist audio companies are getting into the headphone and lifestyle market. These products are smaller, more affordable, and easier to use than traditional hi-fi. They appeal to a new generation of music lovers looking for products that fit their more mobile and computer centric lifestyles. I'm the ideal case study. I spend hours throughout my day listening to music on headphones at my desk. Streaming RDIO, watching videos on YouTube, editing videos, etc. While the built in headphone output on my Mac book Air is good. I've been using external USB Dacs for some time to drive bigger less sensitive headphones. Arcam sent us two of their R series boxes to check out, the rPac USB headphone DAC/amp and the rBlink Bluetooth DAC.

Benchmark DAC2 HGC Review

I think it's fair to refer to the Benchmark DAC2 HGC as a DAC since that is its official title, or a headphone amplifier but the owner's manual refers to it as a 'Reference Stereo Preamplifier'. Whatever you call it, this little box does a lot. I reviewed it mostly as a DAC but tried out the preamp and headphone functions as well.

Audiolab M-DAC Digital to Analog Converter

On its website, respected British manufacturer Audiolab proclaims the M-DAC is the follow-up to the 8000 DAC, introduced all the way back in 1992. I have gathered that DACs were quite popular in that era because CD players had not become all that good yet. With the market now awash in quality DACs, I guess it is safe to say we are in a DAC renaissance. Here, we review the Audiolab M-DAC, which, at $899, turns out to be an audio bargain.

Bryston BDA-2 DAC

Following on the highly successful BDA-1 DAC, Bryston has raised the bar with the addition of an asynchronous USB input and reduced distortion in their new BDA-2 DAC. Take a look at what I found. The performance is quite a surprise.

Meridian Explorer USB DAC

Computer audio is all the rage now, with many people moving their entire digital collections to music servers, and the laptop taking the place of the CD player in many systems. The technologies behind USB DACs have evolved rapidly to where the interface is now on the same level as Coaxial or Optical interfaces. One area that hasn't been addressed as well is the portable audio market, as most USB DACs are rack-sized components that require a wall power supply. This is certainly not a convenient option for those of us that want high-resolution audio on the go.

NAD M51 Direct Digital DAC

 

Most audio component manufacturers have a DAC in their product lineup, and NAD is no exception. However, the NAD M51 is unusual in that it takes the incoming digital PCM bitstream and converts it directly to a PWM bitstream, which is then fed directly to the output. The idea has been around for about a decade, but the technology for implementing it was not fast enough in those early days. Now, with modern technology and techniques, NAD has produced what they call a "Direct Digital DAC", where the digital signal does not go through digital to analog conversion in the normal sense, but converted to PWM at 844 kHz sampling, with 35 bit word length. As you will see with the bench tests, the results are quite amazing, and the price is very affordable.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus

Cambridge Audio has been in the audio business for quite some time and one of their more popular products in recent history, the DacMagic has undergone an update. The new DacMagic Plus improves upon the DacMagic by adding support for 24/192 sampling rates.

Rein Audio X-DAC with USB Input

USB DACs are hot items now because you can play music from your computer through them and into a set of headphones or to your main hi-fi rig. Some of these DACs only have a USB input, (no S/PDIF inputs) because their main purpose is for use with a computer. Of course, all computers come with audio ciruitry on the motherboard, and if you have a sound card installed in one of the PC card slots, it may very well have an S/PDIF output. However, their quality is often questionable due to the typically low cost of the sound card. Rein Audio, a German manufacturer, makes the X-DAC, which is a 24/192 DAC with both coaxial and Toslink optical S/PDIF inputs, but also, it has a USB input (24/96) to be used with your computer, giving you better sound quality than you would get from your computer's audio circuit.

CEntrance DACMini USB DAC

CEntrance is a Chicago based company with engineering in the US and Moscow, Russia, design in Holland, and manufacturing facilities in Asia but final assembly in the US . Let's just say 'multi-national'. They got their start in pro audio making microphone/guitar pre-amps with analog to digital converters, the MicPort Pro and AxePort Pro in amazingly small packages. Designed to plug inline on the microphone or guitar cord with a USB output (the units are powered by the USB connection) they provide the smallest possible recording studio, enabling musicians to plug a microphone or guitar 'directly' into a computer as if they were plugging into tape deck. Here, we review the CEntrance DACMini.

Emotiva XDA-1 Differential Reference DAC for the Audiophile

As general rule of thumb, I try not to review equipment from manufacturers of products that I personally own as it can lend an air of bias on my part. I'm just letting you know up front that I own a UMC-1 pre/pro and three amplifiers from Emotiva. I find their products to perform very well and are true bargains in the A/V world.

Wyred4Sound DAC-2 AND STI-500 Integrated Stereo Amplifier

Recently the external DAC has made a bit of a comeback in popularity. While they were once most commonly paired with a digital transport, now you're more likely to see them hooked up as part of a home media server. With disk space now cheap enough that anyone can keep their entire collection archived in a lossless format, and even keep a backup copy of it around, people are using their PC to serve up their audio collection. However, getting the most out of that lossless archive has been a challenge for many as most computer sound cards left much to be desired in the audio quality realm. In this review, we cover the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 and STI-500 Integrated Stereo Amplifier.

Bryston BDA-1 Digital to Analog Converter and Halide Design USB to SPDIF Bridge

Digital to Analog converters (DACs) have been enjoying something of a renaissance in the past couple of years due to the widespread adoption of computer based music. Back before SACD, DVD-A and multichannel audio, DACs were the source component du jour for redbook CD. With the adoption of the new high-resolution formats, DACs fell out of favor, replaced by integrated universal disc players. Today, many people have gone to entirely computer based audio setups. The highest resolution digital audio available today does not come on a disc, but is available via download. This means DACs are back, and the Bryston BDA-1 is regarded as one of the best of the new breed of 24 bit 192 kHz DACs. Along with the Brytson BDA-1, we review the Halide Design USB to SPDIF Bridge.

Logitech Squeezebox Touch Wireless Music Streamer

For a long time now, I've been wanting an easy solution to get music streaming all throughout my house. I've added a Network Attached Storage device (NAS) to allow me to keep all the music in one location that is always accessible, and I've tried out many different streaming solutions, from the Sony PS3 to various processors and receivers with DLNA access built in. Unfortunately, nothing to this point has been both powerful, and easy to use.

Naim Audio DAC

A Naim DAC. Oh how long we have waited. Naim Audio is hi-fi company with its own ideas. For years they held steadfastly to their claim that the only by keeping the spinning CD in the same box as the DAC could jitter be controlled and high fidelity playback be produced. While other hifi companies made similar claims most would relent at least occasionally and offer up a DAC or two.

Neko Audio D100 Mk 2 Stereo DAC

DACs are taking over. I've been waiting for this day ever since the CD format came out because DACs provide an upgrade path. Upgrading is fun. And because DACs are cool. The conversion from digital to analog is of course crucial and for electrical engineers holds more than a little fascination as the music is (we hope) recreated from simple ones and zeroes. In this review, we take a look at the Neko Audio Mk 2 stereo DAC.