Outboard DACs

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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.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Feb 11, 2021
hfnoutstandingThis unit may be compact, but it's a highly comprehensive DAC/headphone amp/preamp, with full network audio capability encompassing a huge range of formats

Based in Xi'an, the ancient city in northwest China that's home to the famous Terracotta Warriors, Matrix Audio has a classic hi-fi backstory: it was founded by three audio/music enthusiast schoolmates who regrouped some years later to launch a company to develop and produce hi-fi separates. The DA-100plus DAC was its inaugural product in 2006 since which time the company has evolved its lineup to encompass a range of digital and streaming products that covers just about all the bases, from the X-Sabre Pro DAC [HFN Nov '17] to the new £2795 Element X.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Dec 08, 2020
hfnoutstandingPart of the Italian company's stripped-down AA line, which is all about simplicity of design, this compact DAC offers more features than initially meet the eye

Italian manufacturer Audio Analogue's 'PureAA' line was spun out of the 20th anniversary models the company launched back in 2016. The range now runs to three models, of which the AAdac is the latest arrival, bringing digital capability to a range that was otherwise purely 'analogue'. Like the other PureAA models and Anniversary amplifiers, the AAdac is a co-operation between Audio Analogue and stablemate AirTech, and is very much Realizzato è Costruito in Italia. There's certainly none of that offshoring the entry-level line here.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Nov 20, 2020
hfnoutstandingOne of a trio of small but substantial add-ons, the MX-DAC joins Musical Fidelity's partnering MX-HPA headphone amp and MX-Vynl phono stage. Is this another steal?

Imagine the dilemma when Pro-Ject acquired Musical Fidelity: the overlap with the former's Box range and the latter's MX models created an in-house rivalry in the 'affordable audiophile' sector. Both produce pint-sized ranges with matching phono stages, headphone amps and – of relevance here – beer-budget DACs. Musical Fidelity's MX-DAC, at £499, is a direct challenge to Pro-Ject's Pre Box DS2 Digital [HFN Nov '17] and a few others in the family, but the lineups are distinctive enough to cause no sleepless nights.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Oct 15, 2020
hfnoutstandingThis flagship DAC from Canada, complete with a raft of in-house digital and power supply technologies, and very slick control app, is a complete network music solution

When is a DAC not a DAC? When it turns into a multifunctional network-connected music player, that's when! Increasingly, the lines between products that exist to convert digital inputs into analogue audio and full-blown network players are becoming blurred. So, just as there are players provided only with digital outputs – network transports or bridges to be paired with an outboard DAC – so we now have DACs with network capability built-in. Add an app running suitable UPnP control software, and you have a complete streaming solution.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Oct 08, 2020
hfnoutstandingIn a world where every other product seems to have streaming this or network that, this compact box from the German brand is about as direct – or linear – as it can get

Writing in his Welcome page last month, editor Paul Miller explained how shifting hugely heavy equipment about is all part and parcel of the HFN reviewing 'experience'. Perhaps he was eyeing a recent speaker launch proudly declaring that its new products weigh over 450kg apiece. Add on their external crossover with its power supply, and a quartet of high-quality amps to drive them, and you could well end up wondering whether your floor will support a tonne and a half of hi-fi.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Aug 24, 2020
hfnoutstandingWith its eye-catching looks, flexibility, solid engineering within and a remarkably grown-up sound, this entry-level DAC from iFi Audio is a conspicuous hi-fi bargain

We've come a long way since iFi Audio was started as an offshoot of high-end brand Abbingdon Music Research, building its initial reputation with its 'Purifier' products, designed to clean up digital signals. And if anyone was labouring under the delusion that these were devices designed to tackle non-existent problems – you know, the old 'digits is digits' thing – the company has since expanded into making everything from complete systems to some of the most cost-effective DACs and headphone amps around. After all, its excellent xDSD [HFN Jul '18], was a 2018-19 EISA Award-winner, following on from the 2014-15 winning footsteps of the nano iDSD [HFN Dec '14].

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jul 24, 2020
hfnoutstandingPrimaLuna's minimalist, valve-equipped EVO 100 DAC may seem a throwback to the time when digital only meant CD, but the sonic performance is truly 21st century

Two words spring to mind when examining PrimaLuna's EvoLution series EVO 100 DAC: 'old school'. Yes, a genre as seemingly new as digital has been around long enough to qualify for that mode of thinking. This unit is, I have been told emphatically, 'a DAC for purists', so £2888 gets you no wireless connections, no pandering to streaming, no headphone output, no level control. It is strictly a DAC in the original sense – a D/A converter-only and not one that doubles as a preamp or headphone amp.

Review: Christopher Breunig, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jul 16, 2020
hfnoutstandingWith trickle-down tech from the flagship M1, a custom DSD DAC plus network and headphone amp options, Bricasti's M3 looks like the new go-to star of the range

With its upgraded M1 Dual Mono DAC now in 'Classic' form and selling in the UK at £9499, Bricasti has also announced a more affordable alternative, but still offering 'an incredible array of performance'. The basic M3 USB DAC is offered at £5399, but this increases to £6999 when fitted with its DNLA/UPnP-compatible network streaming card and new headphone amplifier option. The latter includes both 4-pin balanced XLR and 6.35mm single-ended jack outputs, and is available as a return-to-factory retro-fit option as the front fascia requires some reworking.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jun 12, 2020
hfnoutstandingLaunched to the audiophile world at CES in 1995, Balanced Audio Technologies may have lifted off like a rocket but has only had patchy distribution in Europe. Until now...

Balanced Audio Technologies – BAT for short – has been much discussed over its 25-year life to date, but until now has remained an object of distant interest for UK audio fans. Now, thanks to distribution by Yorkshire-based Karma AV, all that might be set to change, so perhaps now is the time to take a closer look at the brand.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 27, 2020
hfncommendedThis entry-level combination from US brand PS Audio combines proprietary technology with some tried-and-tested solutions in a preamp/DAC and brace of mono power amps

Colorado-based PS Audio is known for a number of things: its products are handmade in its own US facilities and, as of last year, it only sells direct to its US customers. Here in the UK, PS Audio's equipment is sold more conventionally, through distributor Signature Audio Systems, which premiered the company's Stellar Phono Amplifier at the Hi-Fi Show Live at Ascot in October last year. That product, along with the Power Plant 3 AC regenerator [HFN Jan '20], is part of the new entry-level range from the company.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 22, 2020
hfnoutstandingThe most novel high-end DACs often employ proprietary converter solutions instead of off-the-shelf chipsets. From Italy comes this unique take on the NOS 'ladder DAC'

As we've seen in the past, notably in our review of its La Voce S2 DAC [HFN Aug '16], Italian company Aqua, aka AQ Technologies, tends to follow its own path in the design and engineering of its products. Based in Milan, and just coming up to the tenth anniversary of its founding by chief engineer and product designer Cristian Anelli, it bases its work on what it describes as 'dedicated research with creative thinking'.

Review: Nick Tate, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Apr 10, 2020
hfnoutstandingThe best high-end DACs often employ entirely bespoke converter technologies rather than off-the-shelf chipsets. We look at the first rung on MSB's range of 'ladder DACs'

Based in Silicon Valley, California, Jonathan Gullman and his brother Daniel have become major players on the international hi-fi scene, courtesy of their fine-sounding and technologically innovative range of MSB digital-to-analogue converters. For 15 years this team has turned out increasingly flexible products, and more recently the range has expanded to satisfy a wider group of potential customers.

Review: Andrew Everard, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 23, 2020
hfnoutstandingBest known for its music rippers and servers, the Korean company has now entered the personal audio market with a comprehensively-equipped DAC/headphone amp

When it comes to affordable music players with hard disk storage, few companies have the pedigree of Korea-based Novatron. Its range of products, sold under the Cocktail Audio brand worldwide – including here, before a UK-only rebranding to Novafidelity – starts from as little as £650 for the X14 model. In this instance the user is able to decide how much storage capacity to have installed, or even buy the unit 'bare bones' and add their own choice of drive.

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