Outboard DACs

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Paul Miller  |  Nov 19, 2011
Another digital masterclass from dCS but with added aesthetic charm. Down the years a great many words of praise have been directed at dCS products but I doubt that ‘stylish’ or ‘chic’ have often been among them. Well, the new Debussy DAC represents a big step in the right direction. Let’s begin the tour with that striking fascia, festooned with no fewer than 17 blue LEDs.
Ed Selley  |  Nov 19, 2011
USB adds to the already useful feature set of this capable design

So successful has the outboard DAC’s renaissance been that there are now more models available than you can shake a stick at. One company that offers a wide range of both professional and consumer models is New York-based Benchmark Media Systems.

Benchmark’s reputation for making fine compact DACs goes before it. But in case you missed the good reviews, the DAC1 USB comes with no fewer than13 sides of US Letter covered in words of praise from satisfied users.

John Bamford and Paul Miller  |  Sep 02, 2011
It doesn’t seem that long ago since D-to-A converters featuring USB sockets were something quite rare. How times have changed in just a few short years. Today pretty much all standalone DACs – including models from UK specialist manufacturer Chord Electronics – have them. Computer audio is ubiquitous in modern households, after all.
Ed Selley  |  Aug 08, 2011
Designed to mimic the design of the Mac Mini, the CEntrance has wider appeal If you’re planning to use a Mac mini as your audio computer (and it’s a good choice given that it is small, smart, quiet and you can always use a Windows OS if you prefer) then why not have a DAC of similar appearance? That’s the USP of the CEntrance DACmini CX, which doesn’t quite pull off the imitation (there are joins in the case at either side) but even without a Mac mini as partner has the benefit of being likewise compact and sleek. That volume control knob on the front panel might suggest that the DACmini, like the Benchmark, Electrocompaniet and Antelope models, offers variable output level but it’s deceptive. The volume control actually adjusts the level of the headphone output only, via the nearby 1⁄4in jack. The rear panel analogue outputs are fixed.
Ed Selley  |  Aug 08, 2011
A very capable design with the added benefit of wireless connectivity Electrocompaniet’s new PD-1 is the largest DAC here and would be the most traditional in appearance but for its touch-sensitive display panel. It’s solidly enough built – although the review top plate on the review sample did rattle against the fascia. The PD-1 is unique in this group in two respects. First, it is supplied with a remote control, which allows the input source, output volume setting and display brightness to be adjusted.
Ed Selley  |  Aug 08, 2011
A crossover from the pro sphere with an extensive feature set Antelope Audio is better known in the pro audio industry than in the audiophile world, although its attendance at the recent Munich high-end show is evidence of its desire to bridge the divide. A glance at the Zodiac+ suffices to confirm its pro heritage. Not only does it describe itself as an ‘HD Mastering D/A Converter’ on the fascia, at the back there are unusual features such as balanced analogue inputs on 1⁄4in jack sockets, a word clock input and de-jittered digital outputs for daisy-chaining to other devices – none of which many audiophile buyers will ever have cause to use. The fascia is dominated by a central volume control that adjusts output level on the balanced and unbalanced analogue outputs.
Ed Selley  |  Jul 08, 2011
Technically accomplished and extremely insightful North Star Design is an Italian company but there is little evidence in the USB dac32 of the flamboyant design features that often distinguish that country’s audio products. There’s no gratuitous use of wood and no eye-catching metal sculpture. On the contrary, the USB dac32 is positively staid in appearance, albeit chunkily built and surprisingly heavy at 5kg. Operationally it’s as simple as can be.
Keith Howard & Paul Miller  |  Jan 16, 2010
If you agree with me that optical disc replay – whatever the colour of laser it uses – is yesterday’s audio technology, there are numerous different ways to replay music from hard disk instead, some of which don’t even involve having a computer in the listening room. But if you insist on being able to play both stereo and multichannel files in hi-res then the options begin to dry up. If you’re content to use a desktop computer as your audio source then you can, of course, fit a multichannel sound card to one of its expansion slots. But if you insist on a computer that’s more compact and pleasing to the eye – something like the Mac mini, which is less aesthetically challenged than even a laptop – then you’ll need an external audio interface.
Ken Kessler & Paul Miller  |  Dec 17, 2009
Audio Research explains the role of the DAC7 thus: ‘With the growth of the iTunes culture and the increasing popularity of storing music on a hard drive, we were asked repeatedly to offer a USB DAC that could connect with Macs, PCs and servers to deliver a new benchmark in high resolution digital music playback’. It responded with a righteous solution that doesn’t pay mere lip service to iPods, servers and the like, because it’s an irresistibly musical device when used in a strictly traditional manner: fed by a CD transport. So good was the performance when used with the Marantz CD12 transport and Quad’s CDP99 Mk II CD player that I approached the need to audition other sources grudgingly. Yes, I have a hundreds of tracks on my notebook PC and mobile phone, but the test was my son’s computer – his primary source of music.
Paul Miller  |  Nov 17, 2009
If Pro-Ject could squeeze one of its fine turntables into the form factor of its burgeoning Box Series I’m rather sure it would. After all, it already offers TT power supplies, phono amps, pre and power amps, tuners and a USB DAC in this pocket-sized casework. Ok, so the turntable idea is a bit impractical, but another DAC well. .
Paul Miller  |  Jun 05, 2009
You may be forgiven for having not yet heard of Firestone Audio though its quirkily designed little boxes appear to be gaining something of a cult following. Made in Taiwan, there’s a plethora of components in Firestone’s range, encompassing phono preamplifiers, various solid-state and valve headphone amplifers including a battery powered model, digital-to-analogue converters and even a dinky little 8W stereo power amp dubbed Big Joe. One of its headphone amps is called Cute Beyond. Did I mention that these miniature boxes looked cute? Funny, that; Firestone calls them the Cute Series.
Keith Howard & Paul Miller  |  Apr 17, 2009
As the tone of my reviews of the Linn Majik DS and dCS Scarlatti Upsampler/DAC may have hinted, I am beginning to see hard disk – rather than optical disc – as my audio source of choice in the near future. If you have been thinking along similar lines, your mind may have boggled at all the different ways of achieving this. A single-box music server solution is not for me, if only because for review purposes I’m likely to require a component rather than integrated solution. And streaming players are out because I insist on having multichannel capability.
Andrew Harrison & Paul Miller  |  Apr 05, 2009
It seemed like a brave new world back then. It was early 1999, DVD video had been on the market for less than two years, and already audio people were seeing the possibilities – music in the home at 24-bit, 96kHz linear PCM, with the potential to knock CD audio into a cocked hat. Alongside the small flurry of music DVD discs that were released with 24/96 audio came the first outboard DACs capable of exploiting this high-resolution material. One of the very first companies to take the challenge was MSB Technology, a digital audio specialist based in California.
Keith Howard & Paul Miller  |  Feb 05, 2009
The last time I was fortunate enough to have a dCS upsampler at home it was the Purcell, which was limited to upsampling PCM to PCM. Since then dCS has become a staunch advocate of DSD – the 1-bit, 2. 8224MHz coding system used in SACD – and so the Upsampler half of the Scarlatti pairing here (the other being the Scarlatti DAC) offers upsampling to either PCM or DSD. It’s the user’s choice, with dCS’s preference being the latter.
Steve Harris & Paul Miller  |  Feb 05, 2009
There’s some controversy over who produced the first separate digital-to-analogue converter for CD users, but the honour is most convincingly claimed by Arcam, which launched its original Black Box back in 1989. By 1991, you could buy something smaller and cheaper, though as it came from California it had a grand-sounding name. The Audio Alchemy Digital Decoding Engine was the size of a small paperback, with a rudimentary plug-top power supply. In this country, Cambridge Audio wasn’t far behind, launching its original DacMagic in 1994.

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