Halide Design DAC HD D/A converter Page 2

Time for something more challenging. A secret love of mine is the music of 1970s British band Free. Not only did Paul Rodgers have (and still has) one of the great white rock voices, the rhythm section of Andy Fraser on bass and Simon Kirke on drums demonstrated a maturity and a restraint that amplified the music's power by leaving space between the notes. I cued up the live recording of "Mr. Big" (ALAC file from CD: 20th Century Masters, A&M Millennium Edition). Simon Kirke kicked off that sparse drum pattern, and while there was not perhaps the weight to his kick drum routinely delivered by my Mark Levinson No.30.6 DAC, freshly returned from the repair shop, the Halide delivered enough of the energy to propel the music forward—for 1/36 the big Levinson's price! And again, there was a commendable ease to the DAC HD's sound, even in this rawest of rock. I'm not saying that this ease was achieved by rendering the sound dull or involving; while the sound was smooth, it was not smoothed-over.

It's difficult to judge the performance of an inexpensive product in isolation; some context is required. Ideally, I would have liked to compare the Halide against the CEntrance DACPort ($399.95), which I liked a lot when I reviewed it in June 2010. Although the DACPort is primarily a USB headphone amplifier, it can also be used as a D/A converter. Unfortunately, the DACPort has long since left my system, so my first series of comparisons was instead with the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II ($350), which Sam Tellig enthused about last January. The V-DAC II is powered by a small wall wart. It has both S/PDIF inputs and a 24-bit/96kHz-capable USB port operating in asynchronous mode—basically, it combines the functionality and circuits of two earlier Musical Fidelity processors, the original V-DAC and the V-Link asynchronous USB-S/PDIF converter. (I reviewed the latter in April 2011.) Although the V-DAC II is $100 less expensive, the cost of cables brings its price closer to that of the Halide.

As with the Halide, setting up the V-DAC II is no more complicated than plugging it into a USB port on the host computer. Neither converter sounded harsh, which is what you might expect from inexpensive DACs. I agree with Sam that the Musical Fidelity had a sweet, nonfatiguing sound, though the Halide was, if anything, even sweeter. The V-DAC II had somewhat more extended low frequencies than the Halide. I had recently ripped to Apple Lossless files the Gary Burton Quartet's groundbreaking 1969 album Lofty Fake Anagram (CD, One Way). The Halide kept a little better control of the lows of, for example, Steve Swallow's double-bass solo in "Good Citizen Swallow," while not having as much weight. However, the Musical Fidelity's extra low-frequency energy is not as well controlled as it might be. The admittedly overwarm double bass in "Killing the Blues," from Alison Kraus and Robert Plant's Raising Sand (ALAC file transcoded from FLAC download with Max, Rounder/HDtracks 11661), was a bit too fat with the Musical Fidelity compared with the Halide.

More significant, the Musical Fidelity sounded drier than the Halide, there being a little less of the St. Francis Auditorium's ambience audible with the Mozart Flute Quartet: the violin, viola, and cello were presented as being more in the same plane as the flute. Overall, this aspect of the Halide's sound pushed it ahead of the V-DAC II for me, for whom "more space" is always more better. However, it's fair to point out that the Musical Fidelity is more versatile than the Halide, having both coaxial and TosLink S/PDIF inputs as well as USB.

Next up was my Benchmark DAC1 ($995), fed S/PDIF data via the Halide Bridge. (The sample I purchased almost a decade ago was not fitted with the CEntrance-licensed USB input.) Whether it was Steve Swallow's double bass or Simon Kirke's kick drum, the Benchmark's low frequencies had both more weight and more definition—more authority—than either the Halide's or the Musical Fidelity's. But the DAC1's mid-treble sounded more chromium-plated than either of the two more modern DACs. This wasn't a problem with the Mozart quartet, but both the vocals and Paul Kossoff's Les Paul guitar in Free's "Mr. Big" acquired too much of an aggressive edge.

Against that, the Benchmark did space well, the flute and strings in the Mozart being presented in the correct relationship with the surrounding ambience of the hall. The Halide might still have had an advantage here, but the inability to perform direct comparisons without too much of a delay—pause track, reset Pure Music to internal speakers, unplug one USB device, plug in the other, relaunch Pure Music set to new device, press Play—made it difficult to be definitive.

Summing Up
I very much enjoyed my time with the Halide Design DAC HD. That analog-like ease to its sound, coupled with its excellent reproduction of recorded space, allowed all the different types of music I played to clearly speak to me. Competitively priced at $495, the DAC HD is now my go-to device for USB audio playback. I agree with what my colleague Michael Lavorgna wrote in his review for AudioStream.com: "I just want to throw more music and more time at [the Halide DAC HD] so it can reciprocate in kind and completely distract me with music."

Halide Design
(858) 224-3551
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