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

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.

NuForce Icon HDP USB DAC

In the past couple of years, the market for DAC's with USB inputs has really taken off. As people move their whole music library over to a music server, and lossless and high resolution downloads of albums starts to become a reality, getting that audio from your PC to your stereo has become increasingly important. NuForce made a splash with their original Icon DAC, which featured a USB DAC, a couple analog inputs, a 12W amp for a stereo speaker setup, and a headphone output. They have come back and improved upon that by releasing the new HDP model.

HD Micromega AirStream Wireless DAC

At this year's CES in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to attend an event for an unusual little device being dubbed a "Wireless DAC." Upon arriving, I saw a box of the plainest kind, about the size of a CD player, with one blue LED in the center. After introductions and some chit chat, I did what any of us would do, looked at the back of the unit. The rear panel was about as plain as the front! A protruding half-circle piece I presumed to be the antenna, a couple of analog RCA outs, digital out, and power cable. That was it. What is this strange box and what is it doing at a high end audio show? Well, it's the HD Micromega AirStream WHi-Fi wireless DAC and it's at a high end audio show, because it delivers high end sound.

Benchmark ADC1 USB Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC)

The pro-audio company Benchmark has a firm foothold in the audiophile world with their digital to analog converter/headphone amp the DAC1 and DAC1 USB. These have been universally well reviewed, including here at Secrets, and I've been able to listen to them myself, and I concur with the positive reports.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic

Cambridge Audio has come up with a product that has wowed everyone: the DacMagic. For $479, you get a DAC that is fully differential (a stereo DAC on each of the two channels), upsampling to 24/192, very low specified distortion, and selectable output filters. Does it perform as claimed? Read our review to see for yourself.

Theta Generation VIII Series 2 Digital-to-Analog Converter/Preamp

Many moons ago, in March 2003, Secrets published one of the first reviews of Theta's then state-of-the-art two-channel DAC/preamp, the Generation VIII (aka Gen. VIII). Close to six years later, after umpteen advances in digital chip technology, Theta has released a significant, Series 2 upgrade to the original Gen. VIII. The upgrade, which can either be easily installed at home or purchased as part of a new unit, renders such significant improvements to the sound as to demand a new review.

Benchmark DAC1 USB

My initial review of the DAC1 Digital-to-Analog Converter appeared in these pages toward the end of 2003. As I wrote at that time, Allen Burdick of Benchmark Media explained that the DAC1, then retailing for $850, was designed with the recording engineer in mind. Since then, the DAC1 has continued to make waves in the audiophile community.

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