Audio Research DAC1 D/A converter Page 3
The DAC1 also distinguished itself in its remarkable ability to clearly differentiate individual threads within the musical fabric. There was a complete lack of homogeneity and fusing of instrumental lines. Instead, each instrument was clearly delineated, both spatially and texturally, in the presentation, allowing its musical contribution to emerge. Percussion instruments, for example, had lives of their own rather than blending in with the rest of the music. The DAC1 revealed massed voices and strings to be made up of individual elements: each instrument's contribution was audible within the ensemble, infusing the presentation with a lifelike quality. In this regard, the DAC1 was clearly superior to the VTL D/A and approached the Wadia 2000's remarkable performance. (See the "Follow-Up" in this issue on the latest versions of the 2000 and X-32 processors.)
The more I listen to and evaluate audio components, the more I find this quality vital to musical realism. It is just this presentation of instruments as individual entities rather than as a synthetic continuum that intrigues the listener and draws him or her into the musical performance.
A related presentation aspect is the ability to reveal layers of detail without becoming aggressive or forward. The DAC1 was a champ in this area, resolving tons of detail yet remaining laid-back and inviting. Detail was never hyped or etched, but subtle, finely woven, and immensely musical. There were layers and layers of musical information, seeming to have many degrees of gradation between the salient and the subtle. The deeper one listened, the more information one could discern. This is contrasted with lesser processors in which the listener encounters a much higher threshold beyond which there is just no more music. Again, this is an area where analog clearly excelsand one which the DAC1 more closely emulates.
The soundstage was quite well developed, with excellent portrayal of size and depth. Reverberation was clearly resolved down to the lowest levels, and seemed to envelop instrumental images without fusing with them. The DAC1 had the ability to open up and reveal the size and acoustical characteristics of the hall. In addition, the sense of three-dimensional layering was superb. There was a clear feeling of instruments existing independently, gently enveloped by the room decay. The quite remarkable spatial qualities of Clark Terry Live at the Village Gate (Chesky JD49) were fully realized through the DAC1. My listening room temporarily became the Village Gate, with the band existing in three-dimensional space before me.
Although there was a sense of air around instrumental outlines, the DAC1 was nevertheless bested by the Wadia 2000 in this regard. The 2000 seems to present a halo of palpable air and space around an instrument in the soundstage, adding to the impression of realism. The DAC1 was still quite good, however, and clearly superior to any competition in its price range.
Another strength of the DAC1 that contributed to the ability to hear such nuances was its remarkable soundstage transparency. There was not a hint of opacity, thickness, or congestion that could cloud the presentation. The DAC1 revealed a pristine clarity rare to hear from digital playback. In this regard, the DAC1 is perhaps the best digital converter I've heard.
Soundstage width was quite goodbetter than the VTLwith images and reverberation appearing beyond the loudspeaker boundaries. This contributed to the DAC1's sense of openness and air. In addition, the presentation retained its width well back into the soundstage, further conveying an accurate sense of size and space.
Before getting to my criticisms of the DAC1, I'd like to discuss perhaps the DAC1's bestand most musically importantattribute: its glare-free and natural presentation of instrumental textures. There was a lushness and liquidity in the midrange that made the presentation so much more involving. Through the DAC1, there was no glare, grain, or hardnessjust the natural shadings and textures of the instrument itself. Listen to any acoustic instrumentespecially piano, violin, and voiceand hear the remarkable portrayal of natural timbres. The DAC1's rendering of instrumental textures was the antithesis of sterile, cold, or "digital." There was a lifelike warmth and silkiness in the mids, but they were never colored or "euphonic." Indeed, I believe it is the DAC1's lack of coloration that allows natural instrumental timbres to emerge. I always had the feeling that the DAC1 got out of the music's way, allowing it to communicate with the listener. Different recordings took on different characteristics without being overlaid with a common sonic signature.
The DAC1 was clearly superior to all other processors in this regard, save the VTL. A significant part of my high regard for the VTL is just this lack of hard textures and brittleness. Having auditioned three processors with the UltraAnalog modules, I'm starting to see a trend: they all have unsurpassed midrange liquidity, a sense of ease, and resolution of fine detail.
Another characteristic the DAC1 shares with its UltraAnalog-based cousins is a leanness and lack of dynamic impact in the bass. I don't know if it's the UltraAnalog converter itself or the products in which I've heard it, but the DAC1's low-frequency rendering wasn't up to the standards set by the rest of its performance. Compared to many other processors in my system, I found the DAC1 lean and lacking LF weight. The entire bass region, with the exception of the lowermost octave, was somewhat threadbare. This reduced the sense of body to instruments whose principle energy is in this range (acoustic and electric bass, for example). The extreme bottom end seemed to have more energy than the mid- and upper bass, with bass drum and organ pedal tones reproduced with more weight. The recent addition of the Muse subwoofer to my system really sheds light on what's going on in the bass.