Audio Research DAC1 D/A converter Page 4
By comparison, the VTL had a fatter, warmer bass rendering that was welcome on some music, but the DAC1 had better articulation and pitch definition. The Wadia 2000, however, was clearly the best in this department. It has an exceptional low-frequency drive and dynamic impact that was in sharp contrast to the DAC1's lightish, less visceral presentation. The sense of power, rhythmic drive, and energy was clearly greater with the Wadia 2000. Listening to the guitar and bass recording on the Stereophile Test CD, the DAC1 was missing the warmth and body of the bass. The VTL was perhaps overly ripe, while the 2000 most accurately conveyed the instrument's extension and best resolved pitch.
This is a minor complaint, however, in light of the DAC1's exemplary sonics. How musically significant the DAC1's LF shortcomings will be is dependent on one's system and musical and sonic tastes. My only other complaint with the DAC1 was a very slightly edgy treble presentation. There was a measure of hash and grain to cymbals and vocal sibilance compared with the Wadia 2000. Although the delicate lower-frequency component of cymbalswhat gives it the sound of brass being struckwasn't obscured, the top octave had just a trace of tizziness. It may be possible that the 2000's rolled-off treble made hashy recordings more euphonic while the DAC1 more accurately presented what was on the CD. At any rate, I preferred the 2000's treble.
Both the DAC1's bass and upper-treble performances became substantially better, however, when driven by a glass-fiber optic signal from the Wadia WT-3200 transport. The bass extended deeper, took on more authority, and became more dynamic with the 3200's glass output. The difference was not subtle: using the front-panel switch to select between the two interfaces threw the differences into sharp relief. The DAC1's LF presentation still didn't approach the 2000's, but was significantly weightier with the glass interface.
In addition to improving the bass performance, the entire presentation was superior, I felt, with the glass-optical signal. Hall ambience increased, instrumental outlines became more vivid and distinct, and there was an increase in soundstage transparency. The glass interface also provided a smoother, more coherent treble. Cymbals took on a softer, gentler character, and sibilance was notably reduced. When JA heard the comparison between glass and coax with the Wadia X-32, he noted that sibilance seemed to be detached from the vocal image with the coaxial interface, and more a part of the voice with the glass interface.
Audio Research's decision to include that AT&T glass-fiber optic was a wise one. Although very few transports have glass fiber-optic output, the DAC1's performance significantly improved with the WT-3200's glass-fiber output. I think more and more manufacturers will jump on the glass-fiber interface as they discover its sonic merits.
Given this experience, I strongly recommend the DAC1 be driven by a transport with a glass-fiber output. Remember, this isn't the standard TOSLINK output designed for plastic optical interconnectthey are worse than coaxialbut the AT&T STtype interface. The Wadia WT-3200 is an excellent companion to the DAC1: the 3200 has superb sonics in its own right, is reasonably affordable, and its glass-fiber interface allows the DAC1 to sound its best.
A good test of digital processor quality is to switch back to LPs after a long digital listening session. The degree of relief one experiences is inversely proportional to the digital processor's musicality. No, the DAC1 isn't analog, but it was able to provide hours of fatigue-free and musically satisfying listening.
Isn't it ironic that the "miracle technology" of digital audio uses an arguably primitive and near-obsolete format as the standard for which to strive?
If the Audio Research DAC1 were priced at $7000, it would be a strong contender in the ultrahigh-end digital processor competition and would have received a recommendation from this reviewer. But at $2995, the DAC1 is clearly an unprecedented bargain. It easily outdistanced all other processors except those costing two, three, and even four times its price. Even compared with the best in digital playbackthe Wadia 2000 ($8500), VTL Reference ($7000), Stax DAC-X1t ($12,000)the DAC1 held its own, and in some ways surpassed these megabuck units.
The DAC1's primary strengths are an exquisitely liquid and natural midrange, remarkable soundstage transparency, ability to present musical detail in many gradations of subtlety, and clear differentiation of instrumental outlines. In addition, the DAC1 produced an enjoyable sense of ease and involvement with the music. The DAC1 doesn't jump out and knock you over the head, saying "Here I am!" Instead, it is understated, sophisticated, and refined, especially in its presentation of detail.
On the downside, the bass performance was overly lean, imparting a somewhat threadbare quality to some instruments. I would have liked a bit more weight, more meat on the bone. I also felt that the DAC1 lacked low-frequency dynamics and impact. In these areas, it was bettered somewhat by the VTL, greatly by the Wadia 2000. I'm loathe to reiterate the treble criticism, so minor was my complaint.
In light of its improved performance with the glass fiber-optical interface, I highly recommend the Wadia WT-3200 as a companion to the DAC1. The WT-3200 is another product that offers exceptional performance for the money; together they offer very nearly the best digital playback currently available, in my opinion. Granted, $5500 for the pair isn't cheap, but it is also a long way from processor/transport combinations that cost more than a fully loaded Buick.
I can't recommend the Audio Research DAC1 more highly. This kind of musical performance from digital hasn't been previously available at anywhere near this price. In addition, the DAC1's design, build quality, and overall execution are first-rate. If you're considering spending $2000 or $12,000, listen to the DAC1 before you buy: music lovers with either budget may find the DAC1 hard to pass up.