Outboard DACs

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Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jun 23, 2022
hfnoutstandingThis Polish hotshot brand broke onto the audiophile scene with its programmable DC PSU, followed by the OOR headphone amp. Now, with DAC onboard, comes the ERCO

The name of this new product from Polish company HEM, selling under its Ferrum brand, is spelt ERCO, but pronounced 'ertso'. Apparently it's Esperanto for 'ore', and so follows on from the mineral-based brand-identity – Ferrum, OOR – you get the idea. What's also not immediately apparent, given that all the Ferrum products basically look the same, is that the £2395 ERCO is perhaps the most comprehensively equipped model the company has made to date.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 30, 2022
hfnoutstandingThe compact but comprehensively-equipped Matrix Audio digital front-ends are distinguished by chipset and features. We look at the flagship 'headphone-free' DAC

For anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that Chinese-made hi-fi means cheap and cheerful alternatives to the big-name brands, it's time for an eye-opener. In practice, not only are quite a few of those big names having their products made in China, but its home-grown brands are upping their game and making inroads into markets once dominated by Western and Japanese names. A case in point is the Matrix Audio X-Sabre 3 we have here, following on from the X-Sabre Pro DAC [HFN Nov '17], Element X [HFN Jan '21] and more recently the Mini-i Pro 3 [HFN Feb 22].

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 20, 2022
hfnoutstandingTiny, solidly made, UK-built and now even more capable, is this compact USB DAC/headphone amp from Chord Electronics still the one to beat below £500?

Inundated as we are with pocket-money portable headphone amp/DACs, Chord's Mojo 2 asks the question: why drop £449 on a portable headphone DAC? Once you hear it, you'll understand, especially if top-quality sound on the move matters to you. The Mojo 2 is an upgrade on the top-drawer Mojo [HFN Jan '16], the battery-powered, smaller-than-a-deck-of-cards DAC/headphone amp. It arrives with only a £50 price increase that doesn't even correspond to real-world inflation. Even without the Mojo 2 improvements, the original Mojo should retail for £470 in 2022 just for the inflation, so Chord has somehow managed to squeeze in a host of upgrades with but a nominal price hike.

Review: Ed Selley, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 15, 2022
hfnoutstandingPitched at the very affordable end of MA's comprehensive DAC/headphone series, the network-attached mini-i Pro 3 supports a huge range of formats with a powerful punch

The exact definition of what constitutes a DAC has become a little blurry in recent years. Where once the outboard 'Digital-to-Analogue Converter' offered S/PDIF and possibly USB digital inputs together with fixed and/or variable outputs on RCAs and/or XLRs, the latest generation has undergone a fair bit of mission creep. Some of this is undoubtedly in response to the wealth of new digital sources but it also speaks to the relaxing of the principles of hair-shirt minimalism that audio has worked to over many years.

Review: Andrew Everard, Review: Paul Miller  |  Feb 28, 2022
hfnedchoiceRevised and refined, and now clad in metal, AudioQuest's USB noise filter is still a compelling upgrade for portable DAC users.

As we described in our review of AudioQuest's original JitterBug [HFN Oct '15], this little serial plug-in is not a re-clocker for digital datastreams, but rather a purely passive device (drawing no power from the USB hub) that provides transformer-isolation and RF filtering of both the 5V USB 'VBUS' and its differential data lines. The promise, according to AQ, goes something like this: 'the dual-discrete noise-dissipation circuits reduce internally generated RF noise for improved streaming audio, [reducing] jitter and packet errors'.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Feb 11, 2022
hfnoutstandingA decade on from the brand-defining M1 DAC and Bricasti has poured all its latter day experience into a new flagship featuring bespoke DAC and clocking technologies

Bricasti Design is not an adherent to the 'keep your range rolling' philosophy. Likely informed by its professional audio heritage, it keeps new arrivals to a minimum. So the launch of the M21 DAC, a flagship D/A converter to replace the £9600 M1 of 2011 HFN Jun '11], is of interest particularly when you clock the updates the Massachusetts-based company has implemented, and its £17,249 price tag.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Feb 08, 2022
hfnoutstandingSporting a Signature nameplate, the flagship of iFi Audio's sprawling digital product range has been fine-tuned with 'audiophile' components and offboard iPower Elite PSU

No, you're not having a flashback, but you'd be forgiven a sense of déjà vu, given that we reviewed the original iFi Audio Pro iDSD DAC/headphone amplifier [HFN Sep '18]. Then it sported what we thought was an ambitious £2500 price tag, and pro-audio aspirations with a range of facilities so extensive that it paid to know what you were doing when tackling its myriad options and adjustments.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Oct 18, 2021
hfnoutstandingIf it isn't broken, don't fix it... but Simaudio's MOON 280D outboard DAC is certainly enhanced by the addition of the updated MiND 2 streaming module and app

There are two ways to make a network music player. One is to take a streaming platform and integrate a DAC to provide analogue outputs, while the other is to start with a DAC and then build in the network playback capability. The two approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Typically, the network player with DAC will be just what it says: a full-featured machine, usually complete with a display, but with limited connectivity for external digital sources. The DAC with streaming, meanwhile, will commonly have more digital ins, but sometimes less network audio capability.

Review: Nick Tate, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Oct 07, 2021
hfnoutstandingIf there's one man synonymous with the 'custom DAC' it's Ed Meitner, who has crafted his own digital tech for 30 years. His latest outboard DAC is a chip off the digital block

Twenty years or so ago, standalone DACs were fast becoming an endangered species. The breed had a brief moment in the sun in the early '90s, with almost all CD player brands fitting digital outputs, but until the advent of USB audio, the add-on digital box was on the wane. Now, with the rise of digital streaming, network-attached DACs are the gift that keeps on giving, for hi-fi brands and buyers alike.

Review: James Parker, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Sep 27, 2021
hfncommendedWell, one thing's for sure: the new SACD/CD player/DAC from McIntosh looks quite unlike any other machine of its kind. So, does the sound live up to the unique style?

Take a quick look at the £4995 McIntosh MCD85, and you'd probably think it was another in the seemingly endless line of amplifier variations emerging from the Binghamton factory in upstate New York. In fact, the first sign that this isn't actually a power amp is the weight. Thanks to their hefty transformers and solidity of build, the company's powerhouses tend to be back-achingly heavy, and arrive on pallets – the new MA1200 integrated amp, for example, weighs in at a shade under 49kg, and the MC901 monoblock is getting on for twice that. By contrast, the MCD85 is a manageable 12.5kg boxed, and a positively featherweight 9.3kg in the buff.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Aug 26, 2021
hfnoutstandingWith deep roots in 'professional audio' and a novel discrete op-amp module as a key driving force, SPL is looking to bring a splash of colour to our audiophile universe

Well, it makes a change from the usual choice of silver or black… Yes, you can have the German-made SPL Phonitor xe USB DAC/headphone amp, which starts from £1899 depending on specification, in either of those colours if you want, but it's also available in the bright red anodised finish you see here. Not that it needs colour to catch the eye for the unusual battery of features makes it either intriguing or something of a head-scratcher: what do all those knobs and switches do? And then there's the pair of illuminated, retro-looking VU meters – this is clearly not your common or garden DAC/headphone amp.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jul 20, 2021
hfncommendedThe latest in a lineage of DACs stretching back some 27 years has a name – 'DacMagic' – that's as memorable as the parent brand itself. Hey presto, here's the 200M...

The modern hi-fi market is not exactly short of affordable DAC/headphone amplifiers, but the £449 Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M has not only previous form, but an impressive pedigree on its side. Indeed, a full 27 years have passed since the arrival of the original DACMagic-1 as a slightly late, but very affordable and accomplished 'CD upgrade' DAC. Since then, the company's range of digital-to-analogue converters has been developed and refined, as well as adapted to the requirements of the changing hi-fi arena.

Review: James Parker, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jun 10, 2021
hfncommendedTop dog in a range of just two outboard DACs from Swiss brand Merason, the DAC1 is a modern-day example of 'less is more' audiophile thinking. We lift the lid and investigate

In common with a lot of HFN readers, I have a bit of a 'thing' about overly complex digital devices. I'm not referring to input flexibility – many of us will have systems in which different flavours of digital connection are accommodated, from USB links from a computer to good old S/PDIF from a CD player or the like. No, what I really find obstructive is devices bristling with digital-domain options, from filters to dither to PLL bandwidth and the like, all of which often look like an exercise in 'because we can' – a facilities arms-race – rather than being of any real-world assistance to the user.

Review: Mark Craven, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 10, 2021
hfncommendedWhat is the connection between this Slovakian-built CD player/DAC and global turntable giant Pro-Ject, and does its triode tube output stage give it an edge?

In the music business, an eight-year wait between albums might give fans cause for concern and raise fears of 'issues' behind the scenes. But we have no such worries about the similar gap betwewen Canor's latest CD player and its predecessor – it's all par for the course for this Slovakian marque. Since arriving in 1995 with the TP101 amplifier (under the brand name Edgar), this self-proclaimed tube specialist has developed a modest catalogue, always at its own pace and with little apparent attention paid to current hi-fi 'trends'. So the promise of the CD 2.10 is firmly rooted in physical CD playback, and a sound informed by Canor's love of tubes, a well-regarded DAC and its detailed attention to build and finish.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Apr 27, 2021
hfnoutstandingLaunched with a typically dazzling array of acronyms, the NEO iDSD is nonetheless a more focused DAC/pre/headphone amp, equipped with the latest 'hi-res' Bluetooth

Seemingly there's no stopping Southport-based iFi Audio: it just keeps on trotting out new digital products, all aiming to fill a gap in the market – or create a new gap to fill. Indeed, while writing this review I was unsurprised to see another new launch pop up, in the form of the bright red iDSD Diablo.

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