Happy HoliDACs!

This blog entry was first published as Happy HoliDACs on Blogcritics…

It’s Black Friday and, at least in my neighborhood, it should be White Friday. It started snowing late yesterday afternoon and, by this morning, we had a nice white covering. This weekend, it’s your duty as a conspicuous consumer to go out there and do your part for the economy so, I’ve got a little survey of some mid–priced DACs to use with your computer and hi–fi system.

By now, you probably know that a DAC, or Digital Audio Converter, is a hardware device that converts digital audio, in any of several forms, into analog audio that our analog ears can listen to. You probably already own one…Your cell phone has a DAC in it to turn digital voice data into a conversation with your better half or the pizza delivery man. Your computer already has one, either in-built or as an add–on “sound card,” to get audio out of the box. This collection of DACs are for those handful of us who want something better than motherboard audio for their music and are willing to fork over more than chump change to get it.

Schiit’s Gungnir

Schiit’s Gungnir, a fine example of a reasonably priced DAC

These DACs are what I consider mid–priced; more than entry level offerings under US$500, and less than a pair of very decent loudspeakers at $2000. My somewhat arbitrary price bracket is based on what’s available now in very good quality converters, and is a wide enough range for a variety of tastes and budgets.

Let’s dig into the list…First off, the legend. MSRP stands for Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price. Analog; yes or no indicates whether the product has an analog input in addition to one or more digital inputs. The first of the two SR numbers indicate what is the highest sample rate the optical, RCA or XLR digital input can accept, while the second number does the same for the USB input. The H.A. column indicates whether the product has a headphone amp or not. Finally, the comments column mentions features of interest, like balanced internal circuitry, “bal-int,” non–oversampling architecture, “non-o.s.,” and other tidbits I’ll get to in a moment…If the following table is a bit hard to read, here’s a (revised) stand–alone version in its own tab or window.

Manufacturer Model MSRP Analog Sample Rate-AES/USB H.A. Comments
ADL/Furutech GT40 $550 y —/96 y 96k ADC
ADL/Furutech Esprit $1,000 y 192/96 y 96k ADC
Arcam rDACkw $500 n 192/96 n optional wireless transmitter
Asus Xonar Essence One $600-900 n 192/192 y
Audio Block USA DAC-100 TBD n TBD TBD product not yet released
Audio by Van Alstine Vision/Vision EC $1,100 n 192/— n
Audio by Van Alstine Vision Hybrid $2,000 n 192/— n
Audio Elec./Cary Audio Lightning $1,200 n —/192 n
Audio-Gd NFB-2.32 $500 n 192/192 n
Audio-Gd NFB-1.32 $650 n 192/192 n balanced internals
Audio-Gd Reference-5.32 $910 y 96/192 n balanced internals
Audio-Gd NFB-7.32 $1,380 n 192/192 n bal-int, volume control option
Audio-Gd Reference-10.32 $1,850 y 96/192 y balanced internals
Audio-Gd Reference-7.1 $1,960 n 96/96 n balanced internals
Audioengine D2 $950 n 192/96 n wireless transmitter/receiver
Bel Canto DAC1.5 $1,400 n 192/96 y
Bel Canto DAC2.5 $2,000 y 192/96 y 192k ADC
Benchmark DAC2 HGC $2,000 y 192/192 y balanced internals, DSD
Bladelius Design Group USB DAC $700 n —/192 n
Burson Audio Conductor $1,850 y 192/192 y
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus $600 n 192/96 y
CEntrance DACmini CX $800 y 192/96 y
CEntrance DACmini PX $1,000 y 192/96 y 50W Class D power amp
Chord Electronics QuteHD $1,800 n 384/192 n DSD
Emotiva Pro Stealth DC-1 $700 192/192 y
Fostex HP-A3 $500 n 96/96 y
Fostex HP-A8C $2,000 y 192/192 y two heaphone outs
Grace Design m903 $1,900 y 192/192 y
Halide Design DAC HD v1.0 $500 n —/96 n
HEGEL HD11 $1,200 n 192/96 n
HEGEL HD20 $2,000 n 192/96 n
Lindemann USB-DAC 24/192 $1,100 n 192/192 n
Metrum Acoustics Octave $850 n 176.4/— n non-oversampling
Monarchy Audio Monarchy Audio $1,080 y 96/— n separate tube & SS DACs, amp
MOON 300D v.2 $1,600 n 192/192 n
Musical Fidelity M1DAC $820 n 192/96 n
Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD $1,600 y 192/192 y FireWire (1394) in, DSD
NAD M51 $2,000 n 192/192 n HDMI in
Neko Audio D100 Mk2 $1,400 n 192/— n balanced internals
NuForce DAC-100 $1,100 n 192/192 y
NuForce DAC-9 192K $1,700 y 192/192 y
Peachtree Audio iDac $600 n 192/96 n old iPod dock
RATOC Systems International RAL-24192UT1 $600 n —/192 y
Rega DAC $1,000 n 192/192 n multiple filter selection
Rein Audio X-DAC $780 n 192/96 n
Resonessence Audio CONCERO $600 n 192/192 n
Schiit Gungnir $850 n 192/192 n balanced internals
SONORE/Simple Design Sonore/exD $1,300 n —/192 n DSD
Wadia 121decoding computer $1,300 n 192/192 y
Wavelength Audio Proton $900 n —/96 y
Wavelength Audio Brick & Mortar $2,000 n —/44.1 n
Wyred 4 Sound µDAC-HD $500 n 192/192 y Class A
Wyred 4 Sound mPre $1,100 y 192/192 y balanced internals
Wyred 4 Sound W4s DAC-2 $1,500 n 192/192 n

To keep the table a reasonable size, I’ve included the basic features that I feel are most important. The cost itself tells you a good deal about the manufacturer, whether they are offering a value–priced product at the lower end of the scale, or are more interested in performance at the higher end. About half of these DACs include balanced outputs, on an XLR connector, which allows you to include long cable runs in your setup without noise intrusion. Most all have USB inputs and, of those, the majority are now USB Class 2–compliant. This means that Mac OS folks can plug and play 192 kHz files without messing with their Macs. For the Windows kids, a driver is available to convince the operating system to support the 4x sample rates.

A handful of these critters even have ADCs or Analog–to–Digital Converters built in, a block of electronics that will convert your analog turntable or tape deck signal into a digital stream for recording onto your computer. One even has a previous generation iPod dock, the Peachtree offering. In fact, many table top all–in–ones designed for iPods, with amplified speakers et cetera, are DACs as well but they aren’t high quality. They also don’t include external inputs, like USB or Toslink, so they’re out of the running for this survey. Of course, there are many music servers with DACs, but they’re a whole ’nother thing entirely and are mostly out of this price bracket.

Speaking of speakers with built in amplifiers, there are powered speakers with DACs, like Vanatoo’s versatile Transparent One and several from Audioengine. They sound good, cost little and are great to kick out the jams in a dorm or the kitchen. CEntrance’s DACmini PX is a modern, small form factor, low cost integrated amp, with analog inputs as well as digital, and a reasonably sized power amp to drive your choice of passive speaker.

Vanatoo’s Transparent One

Vanatoo’s Transparent One, a full featured powered loudspeaker with digital in

A new trend is the wireless DAC, like the kewel Audioengine D2, which allows you to place your amp and speakers almost anywhere in the house and beam music to that location…like AirPlay except higher fi.
Audioengine’s wireless DAC

Audioengine’s two piece, wireless DAC…better than AirPlay!

So, we are left with 54 entries, and all except one are capable of medium (88.2 or 96k) or high resolution (176.4 or 192k) sample rates. Four are able to go further, accepting DSD or Direct Stream Digital, a very high speed, high resolution data type associated with Super Audio CDs. Chord’s QuteHD is even ready for DXD or 8x PCM at up to a 384 kHz sample rate, an esoteric feature usually reserved for much more spendy DACs. By the way, PCM or Pulse Code Modulation is the most common method of encoding digital audio, and is the method used for Compact Discs.

Chord’s QuteHD DAC

Chord’s very photogenic little QuteHD DAC

Another feature seen on several in the lineup is balanced internal circuitry. This essentially means that not only does each channel have separate circuits but, within each channel, there’s a circuit to push your speaker cones (positive voltage) and another to pull (negative voltage). This reduces distortion for better fidelity and, in some cases, allows you to drive balanced ’phones, a real nicety for headphone heads. Though I didn’t note it for each individual product, many have wireless remotes, so you can select inputs and adjust the gain from the comfort of your Barcalounger.

The last feature I’ll mention is solid or hollow state. In this price range, most of these DACs are solid state, a.k.a. transistorized. A few use tubes and one is a hybrid, with both transistor and tube gain or buffer stages. These days, tube gear is either “offshore” in origin and relatively inexpensive, or built “on shore” and relatively expensive. So, in this mid–price bracket, there isn’t a whole lot of tube products.

Well, that’s the skinny on some DAC that us mere mortals can afford. If I’ve left out your favorite, please weigh in with a comment and I’ll update the list. I hope you have a very hi–fi holidays and, keep on listening!

One Response to “Happy HoliDACs!”

  1. Great post, really enjoyed it!
    — Von