Outboard DACs

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Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 20, 2024
hfnoutstandingComplete with a new streaming module, T+A's latest network-attached DAC/preamp is the perfect partner for its PA 3100 HV integrated and A 3000 HV power amplifiers

Tipping the scales at a hefty 26kg, measuring a portly 46cm deep and 17cm tall, and selling for £14,900, T+A's PSD 3100 HV appears every inch the flagship DAC/streamer/preamp. Except that it isn't – that accolade is reserved for the German brand's SDV 3100 HV [HFN Oct '19], which has been deemed its 'reference' model since its arrival in 2019 and remains available for £26,040.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 13, 2024
hfnoutstandingBuilding on the earlier D2 platform, Lumin's equally compact D3 model features a new processor, new DAC, LeedH volume control and support for increased file sample rates

It's not only loudspeaker brands playing the trickle-down technology game. Lumin's D3, its new entry-level streaming DAC, borrows liberally from the Hong Kong manufacturer's costlier network hardware, utilising elements both inside and out to effect a comprehensive upgrade on the previous D2 [HFN Jul '20]. Its maker says the D3 'brings the audiophile potential of music streaming within everyone's reach', and while the £2195 price tag makes that somewhat debatable, it certainly has plenty of appeal.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Apr 15, 2024
hfnoutstandingThe third and final component in Audiolab's three-strong 9000 series has landed – an app-driven network DAC with balanced outs. But what, if any, is the Lumin connection?

Arriving to crown Audiolab's top-flight 9000 series, which launched with the 9000A integrated amplifier and 9000CDT CD transport [HFN Aug '23], the 9000N is arguably the most intriguing model in the range. This streaming DAC, priced at £2499, and styled to match, marks a point of departure for the brand as its association with DTS Play-Fi is cut in favour of a new streaming platform and app.

Review: Jamie Biesemans, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Apr 08, 2024
hfnoutstandingThe miniature nuvistor 'tube' continues its inexorable march through Musical Fidelity's latest separates, defining the flagship products in its range. Now it's the turn of the DAC

Since Heinz Lichtenegger acquired Musical Fidelity in 2018, the company has appeared truly revitalised, particularly at the upper end of its range. Working with the UK design team, the Pro-Ject boss has resurrected the nuvistor tube-based Nu-Vista line with a slew of new models. And Lichtenegger is a big believer in separates – just in case the many pocket-sized boxes Pro-Ject produces hadn't made that clear – so while on the one hand the EISA Award-winning Nu-Vista 800.2 integrated amplifier [HFN Aug '23] provides a one-stop solution, there's also Musical Fidelity's Nu-Vista PRE/PAS pairing [HFN Mar '23], the Nu-Vista Vinyl 2 phono stage [HFN Feb '24], and now the Nu-Vista DAC.

Review: Jamie Biesemans, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 21, 2024
hfnoutstandingLaunched a little after Halloween, iFi Audio's devilish top-of-the-range portable aims to put a bat up the nightdress of the competition. Are you ready to sell your soul?

With its wide range of portable, battery-powered DACs and headphone amplifiers, few companies have done as much as iFi Audio to improve listening on the hoof. Yet the new iDSD Diablo 2, its latest range-topping model and a replacement for the iDSD Diablo of 2021, pushes the envelope of the mobile DAC/amp genre, both by being far from budget at £1299, and large enough for its manufacturer to deem it more 'transportable' than genuinely 'pocket-size'.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 11, 2024
hfnoutstandingNestled at the heart of dCS's three-box Lina headphone amp solution is the Lina DAC, now refreshed with APEX-level firmware as a springboard into its mainstream range

When dCS was founded in 1987, the idea that hi-fi hardware could be comprehensively upgraded without the need to lug it back to the shop might have seemed the stuff of science-fiction. Skip forward some 40 years, however, and firmware updates – delivered over-the-air for networked products – have become the norm. They're often used to squash 'bugs' and tweak minor settings, but what the Cambridge-based company has done with its Lina Network DAC is more noteworthy.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Feb 08, 2024
hfnoutstandingThe latest addition to PS Audio's Stellar range is a back-to-basics USB/I2S DAC with the emphasis on performance rather than frippery. But it does have a gold 'go faster' stripe!

Following a slew of recent high-end designs including its aspen FR30 and FR20 speakers [HFN Jun '22 & Apr '23], the BHK M600 monoblock amplifiers [HFN Dec '22], and DirectStream DAC Mk2 [HFN Jun '23], Colorado's PS Audio has refocused attention on its more affordable Stellar series, where the mantra is making 'audio bliss attainable'. Yet the new StellarGold DAC, auditioned here and selling for £3999, isn't a straightforward new addition to the line.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jan 23, 2024
Pure in name and hi-fi heart, Matrix Audio's 10th anniversary Element X2 model loses its headphone amp but gains a pair of new, cutting-edge ESS Sabre DACs

While the list of 'legacy products' on Matrix Audio's website begins with the DA-100 Plus DAC, which debuted in 2006, the Chinese brand insists it only really began life in 2013 when it was registered as Matrix Electronic Technology Co. 'Before that, Matrix Audio existed in the form of a studio', says marketing manager Yang Tao. This explains why the literature for the new Element X2 Pure network DAC (and the sticker that graces the top of the unit) proclaims it a celebratory model, launched to mark the company's 10th anniversary.

Review: Jamie Biesemans, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jan 04, 2024
hfnoutstandingFollowing hard on the heels of Denon's DCD/PMA-1700NE SACD player/amplifier, this new network-attached DAC brings a host of streaming options – including HEOS

Our review of the Denon PMA-1700NE amplifier [HFN May '23] included the observation that the Japanese brand was missing a standalone streamer. A glaring oversight, it seemed at the time, as Denon in all other respects is a believer in offering similarly dressed separates for a neat hi-fi stack. So while you could pair the PMA-1700NE (or another PMA series amp) with a DCD series CD player or a Denon turntable, if you wanted to listen to your Tidal playlists you had to look elsewhere. The introduction of the £1399 DNP-2000NE closes the loop.

Review: Andrew Everard, Review and Lab: Paul Miller  |  Dec 04, 2023
hfnoutstandingThe second phase of Naim's 'New Classics' launch brings a new streamer, a preamp and monoblock power amps, all in redesigned slender casework. Are they true 'classics'?

At times of late, it seems Salisbury's Naim Audio is wilfully courting controversy. It's been causing ripples with the brand's faithful fans ever since it launched its all-in-one Mu-so systems and second-generation Uniti products. It wasn't that these arrivals were on a mission to make hi-fi simpler for all, eschewing the tweakery and 'black magic' once suggested as a prerequisite for realising its true potential – no, what broke the usually calm surface was the fact the Naim logo, for decades lit in green, had turned white. Cue Naim aficionados fanning themselves like Edwardian grandes dames with a fit of the vapours.

Review: Jamie Biesemans, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Sep 14, 2023
hfnoutstandingThis Polish tech brand has already made waves with its OOR headphone amp and DAC-equipped ERCO. Now comes its most sophisticated digital offering yet – the Wandla

Does the world really need another DAC? Considering the ample offerings from traditional and emerging Asian hi-fi brands, you might be tempted to say, 'not really'. However, Poland's Ferrum Audio combines experience with a flair for innovation – its parent company HEM has been an OEM contractor for other manufacturers, possibly inciting its engineers to go one better for their own brand.

Review: Jamie Biesemans, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jul 21, 2023
hfncommendedBased in Chicago but with manufacturing in Serbia, the EarMen brand is developing its range at pace. The new ST-Amp DAC/headphone unit is a 'back to basics' audiophile hit

After collecting an EISA Award last year for a complete headphone system featuring a stack of four mini-sized separates – the Staccato, Tradutto, CH-Amp and PSU-3 [HFN Oct '22] – EarMen has doubled back with this minimalist ST-Amp. This is a book-sized, do-it-all unit combining a DAC and dedicated headphone amp, aimed at head-fi enthusiasts looking for a quick and effective path to high-quality desktop listening. So while the ST-Amp moniker might suggest it's simply a more affordable alternative to the aforementioned CH-Amp, it's really a different beast altogether.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jul 06, 2023
hfnoutstandingIt's arguable that the best high-end DACs all feature custom upsampling and conversion architectures – nothing 'off the shelf'! PS Audio has been part of the club for a decade...

All good things come to an end, although in the world of digital hi-fi sometimes that end comes around pretty quickly. Obsolescence isn't as 'built-in' here as it is in the smartphone market, for example, but technological evolutions, be they around chipsets, connection standards or format types, mean 'MK2' iterations of DACs and streaming hardware are a common sight. PS Audio's DirectStream DAC MK2, however, is rather more than a mere second-generation product.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jun 22, 2023
hfnoutstandingFrom Germany's SPL (Sound Performance Laboratory) comes this multicolour USB DAC designed for both 'legacy' and computer connection. There's a volume control too...

Given that most of today's digital components seem to be multifunctional – streamer DACs, DAC/headphone amps and the like – it's unusual to find a product as simple in its operation as its design. Yet that describes the latest arrival from German manufacturer SPL, the £2499 Diamond DAC, available in silver, black or red like all the company's products. A back-to-basics DAC? Well, almost...

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 18, 2023
hfnoutstandingDebuted in the flagship Vivaldi, and now trickled down to the Bartók, dCS's APEX upgrade brings enhancements to the PSU, Ring DAC clocking and analogue output

Maybe it's a sign of the times, or the state of the specialist high-end audio market, but this latest version of dCS's Bartók streaming DAC, often referred to as the company's 'entry-level' model, is now almost twice the price of the original [HFN May '19]. Then, the Bartók was £9999, or £11,999 when fitted with the optional headphone amplifier; now the Bartók APEX, taking on board the company's latest package of enhancements, first seen in the Vivaldi APEX [HFN Jun '22], is £19,000, rising to £21,500 if you choose to take the headphone option.

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