Bryston BDA-3 D/A processor
Yet the BDA-2 could not decode digital files encoded in DSD, a high-resolution digital format that has won interest because it offers music recorded with excellent clarity, realism, and dynamic range. I first heard a knockout DSD recording in one of Sony's exhibit rooms at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. Engineer Cookie Marenco, the founder of Blue Coast Records, played a multichannel DSD recording of Mahler's Symphony 1 using a Sonoma Workstation, an EMM multichannel DAC and controller, five Pass Laboratories amplifiers, and five Sony SS-AR2 speakers. I was stunned by the music's realism, extraordinary dynamic range, and wide, deep soundstage. I couldn't tell if the stunning clarity, ambience, and dynamics I was hearing were due to the high resolution of DSD or the fact that I was hearing a multichannel mix (or both). To find out, I dragged Stereophile's multichannel expert, Kal Rubinson, back to Sony's suite, but if he came up with an answer to my question, I never learned it. That said, he raved about the demo in his May 2013 column, calling it "a system of bracing simplicity" that "possessed, simultaneously, clarity, coherence, and spaciousness."
Which brings me to Bryston's new DAC, the BDA-3 ($3495), which can process both PCM and DSD files. When I heard that it also has HDMI inputsthe only interface standard that can transfer DSD data from SACDsI hurriedly requested a review sample.
DSD from SACD
In 2015, as I reviewed the Mark Levinson No.585 integrated amplifier, my Las Vegas DSD epiphany was confirmed. The No.585's internal DAC was able to process DSD files via USB to produce the same richness and coherence of musical detail I'd heard at the 2013 CES. But the No.585 lacked the HDMI input needed to accept DSD files from SACDs.
Michael Fremer experienced the same frustration while reviewing Simaudio's Moon Evolution 780D DAC ($15,000), which also lacks an HDMI input. Surveying his "wall full of SACDs," he lamented, "it's beyond frustrating to know that all that hi-rez music is still locked out, unable to be decoded by this well-built, well-engineered, superb-sounding, and otherwise versatile DAC." While the 780D's USB 2.0 Type B input was compatible with three DSD sample rates, it could not accept DSD from SACDs.
Why does the SACD format require an HDMI connection? Sony, which partnered with Philips to develop the Super Audio Compact Disc and now licenses the format to other manufacturers to make SACD drives, designed its firmware to prevent DSD hi-rez data from being copied via any connector that could be connected to a digital recorder of any kind. Only connection via the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) was permitted, because of its handshaking capability and its then-exclusive use with video monitors. The BDA-3 not only has an HDMI inputit has four. All I needed was an SACD player with an HDMI output. So, for this review, I bought an Oppo BDP-103 universal BD/DVD/SACD/CD player.
While its controls and aluminum case resemble those of Bryston's earlier DACs, the BDA-3 has three visible differences: its front panel is 5/8" taller; its connectors include four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output; and its front-panel display includes an extra column of LEDs to indicate DSD signal rates. The first two stacks of LEDs display the eight PCM sampling rates the BDA-3 can process, while the third column shows the sampling rates for DSD64 (2.8224MHz), DSD128 (5.6448MHz), and DSD256 (11.2896MHz). These LEDs glow green if the incoming DSD signal is formatted as DSD-over-PCM (DoP), amber if native DSD. A user-controlled upsampling feature can increase PCM data rate in multiples of 44.1 or 48kHz but does not alter DSD data. (Upsampling cannot be applied to USB or HDMI inputs.)
In all, the BDA-3 has 10 digital inputs: four HDMI, two USB 2.0 Type 2 asynchronous, one AES/EBU, one optical (TosLink), and two S/PDIF (one RCA, one BNC). This leaves room for an IEC-320 C14 socket for the detachable power cord, a trigger input for power/standby, three two-way control interfaces (RS232, Ethernet, USB Type B), an HDMI output for video throughput, and two pairs of analog outputs (RCA and XLR).
The BDA-3's various digital inputs support different file formats and sample rates. The S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs handle PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz, but not DSD; the optical input, PCM up to 24/96; and the HDMI inputs, PCM formats up to 24/192 and DSD64 from SACD. The BDA-3's asynchronous USB 2.0 Type B inputs are the most flexible, being compatible with PCM digital sample rates up to 32/384 and all three DSD resolutions, but not DSD from SACD. The BDA-3 does not support MQA, or multichannel Dolby Digital or DTS.
To reduce jitter, the BDA-3 strips the embedded clock signal from the incoming digital datastream and reclocks it with its own high-precision master clock. PCM and DSD formats are handled by separate circuit pathsno internal DSD-to-PCM conversion is done before the datastream reaches the DACs. The BDA-3's two 32-bit AKM DACs process DSD both natively and in DoP. Once converted to analog, the signal is amplified by Bryston's "proprietary discrete class-A op-amps," which drive the BDA-3's audio outputs.
Lifting off the BDA-3's top panel reveals, behind the left side of the front panel, a toroidal transformer and a power supply said by Bryston to be highly regulated. A ribbon cable connects the front-panel controls to the larger of two printed circuit boards (PCBs) for input switching. Also on this PCB are multistage voltage regulation and the power supply's electrolytic capacitors. Above this main PCB and attached to the rear panel are two daughterboards: the top one contains the circuitry for the four HDMI input and one HDMI output connectors, the bottom one the circuitry for the two asynchronous USB 2.0 Type B connectors. To the right, another smaller PCB contains the twin DACs and the class-A, balanced analog output stage. The BDA-3's input receiver, sample-rate converter, DAC, and output stage are independently regulated to prevent interaction and thus any resulting jitter. Traces appear carefully routed to reduce the risk of capacitive coupling and further reduce noise and distortion, especially for the low-voltage analog signals leaving the DAC.
The main PCB is made of double-sided glass- epoxy with clearly printed component markings. The surface-mount components populating the PCBs include high-quality, 0.1%-tolerance metal-film resistors and polystyrene capacitors. Soldered and other gas-tight mechanical connections are used for the signal paths. All electrical inputs are galvanically isolated to minimize the noise from source components. The BDA-3's parts quality and assembly are topnotchit should run smoothly for a lifetime. Bryston offers a five-year warranty for the BDA-3, including parts and labor.
Installing the Bryston BDA-3 in my system involved only finding a place for it on a shelf and plugging in various interconnects. I ran balanced and unbalanced interconnects from the BDA-3's analog outputs to a Mark Levinson No.526 preamplifier. To play digital discs, I connected to the BDA-3's corresponding inputs a Wireworld Starlight coaxial cable, run from my Bryston BCD-1 CD player's S/PDIF output; a Bryston AES/EBU cable, from my Bryston BDP-2 media player; and an HDMI cable, from my new Oppo BDP-103 disc player's HDMI 2 output. This enabled me to switch the No.526 preamp between the BCD-1's Crystal CS-43398 DAC and the output of the BDA-3's AKM DACs. I ran a USB link from my Lenovo P50 laptop to one of the BDA-3's USB 2.0 Type B connectors, to be able to stream DSD and PCM files from the laptop using JRiver Media Center 22.
The BDA-3's manual describes additional setup steps, including the installation on my laptop of Bryston's Windows USB driver, as well as how to configure the JRiver Media and Foobar 2000 player softwares. The manual is clearly written, with big diagrams. Other installation challenges can be addressed by e-mailing or calling Bryston support.
The real work of setting up the BDA-3 involved not the DAC itself, but correctly configuring the digital source components feeding itthe laptop, SACD player, and digital media player. For the better part of three days, I consulted with experts at Bryston and Oppo so that I could correctly manipulate the setup menus of the three sources (see sidebar, "Setting Up Digital Source Components to Output DSD").
Footnote 1: See Stereophile, February 2016, Vol.39 No.2, p.137.