Outboard DACs

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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.

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.

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