Outboard DACs

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Paul Miller  |  Nov 19, 2011
Arcam returns to DAC's with a diminutive but well implemented design with the added benefit of wireless. Getting rid of all those computer cables can make wireless hi-fi seem like the next essential, especially if your life revolves around the laptop in your bag rather than a tower under the desk. Enter the Arcam rDAC, Wireless Version.
Ed Selley  |  Nov 19, 2011
A new arrival from the US with superb measured performance. Bricasti’s M1 DAC invites comparison with the dCS Debussy [HFN Dec ’10]. Not merely because of its price and professional antecedents but because of a sterling performance on the test bench. Not unnecessarily large, it oozes the solidity you’d expect of a proper professional audio product – it’s constructed of aluminium alloy panels machined from solid before being anodised and the markings laser-etched.
Paul Miller  |  Nov 19, 2011
A well priced Italian design with an impressive USB implementation.

Among cost-conscious hi-fi enthusiasts, Italy’s North Star Design company has a reputation for making cutting-edge digital audio products that sport sensible price tags. Its latest Essensio DAC is a new entry model in its portfolio that undercuts the price of its existing £1420 USB dac32 by dispensing with balanced outputs and AES/EBU (XLR) digital input sockets. Also missing is the RJ45 socket for I2S interfacing with North Star’s £1750 Model 192 MkII CD transport.

Ed Selley  |  Nov 19, 2011
A simple but effective USB DAC solution. When circumventing a computer’s low quality internal audio processing and pushing out digital audio to an external DAC, there’s nothing more convenient to use than something like the USB-powered Streamer II+ from Californian company High Resolution Technologies (HRT). This is especially true when you consider that the unit boasts asynchronous USB inputs.
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.
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.

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