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.

Comparisons
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."

Company Info
Halide Design
(858) 224-3551
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Comments
Sumflow's picture
Computer Audio

 

The Halide allows easy connecting to computers, but your review does not address the Halide HD’s inability to control the volume from the computer without derogating the sound.

John Atkinson's picture
Re: Computer Audio

Quote:
your review does not address the Halide HD’s inability to control the volume from the computer without derogating the sound.

if you are feeding the Halide's output to your preamplifier, you don't need to adjust the DAC HD's volume with the computer, so your criticism is moot. If you are feeding the Halide drectly to a power amplifier or headphone amplifier without a volume control, then you can use the volume control in Pure Music, which is very much more transparent than the system volume control. But I don't recommend this set-up, as any reset of the system might result in full-level sound being fed to your speakers.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Sumflow's picture
Computer Audio

 

And what about all the other uses of a computers volume control, doesn’t everything go through the Dac?

deckeda's picture
Short answer: No

Long answer:
The computer and/or software player is setup to send audio to the external DAC; the "rest" of the computer still sends audio to the computer's internal system.

The goal is for the computer becomes a dedicated component. Quit the music player and the computer acts like it always has.

Et Quelle's picture
Swallow

With all the things you here about quality of good components weighing more, it surprising the review of the Halide compared to Musical Fidelity. I would treat it more as an accessory if I were in and out of town. Hey a lot of guys are trying to fill up our shelves on our entertainment center. [Hiding real prices from our wives?] The cover to the book matters. Good Citizen Swallow is a neat low energy track to test a component though. I really got into into it.

John Atkinson's picture
Re: Swallow

Quote:
it surprising the review of the Halide compared to Musical Fidelity.

I don't see why. Both products are intended to do exactly the same thing: take the bits from an audio file, convert them to analog, and send the signal to a line preamplifier. The Halide DAC HD turns a PC into a genuine high-end source at an affordable price.

Quote:
Good Citizen Swallow is a neat low energy track to test a component though. I really got into into it.

The "Lofty Fake Anagram" album was one of the first LPs I bought 40 years ago that sounded better as I improved my system.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture
These new mini-DACs

Having recently acquired a FiiO E17, an HRT iStreamer, HRT Headstreamer, Audioengine D1 and Audioquest Dragonfly, I learned about some of the features and sound quality differences of these items. Since the Dragonfly was nearly twice the price of the Headstreamer, I expected it to sound much better, but it doesn't. It may be better, but not anywhere near the difference between it and the lower fidelity FiiO E17 and iStreamer.

Since the latter 3 DACs I noted all sound similar in quality, I wouldn't expect the DAC-HD to sound a lot better. There does seem to be a glut of these mini-DACs coming on the market now, which may be due to widespread availability of the key components. An interesting and useful feature of many or most of these mini-DACs is the ability to drive average hi-fi headphones directly at satisfactory volume, and while the manufacturers are careful to not refer to that feature as a 'headphone amp', it begs that comparison.

And that utility to drive hi-fi headphones raises the volume control issue as one other person noted here. I've read the FAQs, many reviews, and discussed the volume issues with some audiophiles, but it's still not very clear who or what is doing the volume attenuation at all times. Despite some of the DAC makers' claims about 'repurposing' a system volume control, it just seems to me that volume must be part of the digital data that goes to the DAC from the computer, and so the DAC's output volume would somehow be set according to the data bits from the computer that describe a volume setting. At the very least, a more precise description of that process by the manufacturers would clear things up. A 'for example' text (which is just an example, not intended to be an actual description) might read like this: "The computer music player senses its volume setting and the system volume setting and internally decides which is applicable (or combines both), and then sends that setting as part of the data stream going to the USB port, via the specified or default output device. It is up to the device on the USB port to act on that setting or ignore it altogether."

John Atkinson's picture
Re: These new mini-DACs

Quote:
An interesting and useful feature of many or most of these mini-DACs is the ability to drive average hi-fi headphones directly at satisfactory volume, and while the manufacturers are careful to not refer to that feature as a 'headphone amp', it begs that comparison.

The engineering requirements for a true headphone amplifier and a DAC that is intended to drive a line-level input are different. So if a manufacturer refrains from claiming that their mini-DAC is also a headphone amp, I feel that should be respected.

Quote:
And that utility to drive hi-fi headphones raises the volume control issue as one other person noted here. I've read the FAQs, many reviews, and discussed the volume issues with some audiophiles, but it's still not very clear who or what is doing the volume attenuation at all times.

If the system volume control is set to the maximum, then the bits sent to the DAC are the bits in the file, which is the optimal situation - no loss of resolution. The Halide DAC HD doesn't have any volume control; the AudioQuest DragonFly (reviewed in our October issue) has an analog-domain volume control, allowing it to be used as a headphone amp without loss of resolution. The same is true for the CEntrance DACPort.

If you want to use the Halide as a headphone amp, then you can either use the system volume control, which will degrade sound quality, or use the high-precision software volume control provided by something like Pure Music, which does a lot better at preserving sound quality. But the real solution is _not_ to use the Halide as a headphone amp - controlling the volume with the computer eliminates the sound quality advantage it has over less-expensive products like the DragonFly.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture
Good clarification

That fills in a few blanks, thank you.

deckeda's picture
A few more blanks filled in, perhaps.

it just seems to me that volume must be part of the digital data that goes to the DAC from the computer, and so the DAC's output volume would somehow be set according to the data bits from the computer that describe a volume setting.

If we consider that a digital level of 0db is the maximum, full distortionless output, that figure is represented by such things as iTunes' maximum volume setting and other software players maximum volume settings. This reference is taken from classic VU meters which display 0 as the max and a few positive integers "beyond" that as the permissible headroom analog recording can sometimes afford. Digital of course can't do that.

Since a digital recording has a relative volume level when created, that becomes the basis or reference for its noise level for whatever resolution was used to create it.

Say you have a 16-bit file played "normally"---fully. Your software player's volume control is maxed. Remember, doing so doesn't "amplify" anything; the volume control is out of the circuit if you will and all 16 bits arrive at the DAC. 

Now lower the volume in iTunes, Pure Music, foobar2000---doesn't matter. You've just reduced the number of bits delivered to the DAC because that's the only way the software CAN reduce the relative volume of a given file.

Whenever you lose bits, you gotta dither (add sophisticated noise) to mask the effects of the lost bits, which by themselves would likely be worse.

iTunes now dithers-I think-but it won't be as sophisticated as the dithering Pure Music and some others can apply. Pure Music even says that if you want to use its most sophisticated dither you need a more recent Mac --- applying good dither on the fly, i.e. while the file is playing, doesn't come free and you need CPU cycles.

Analog volume controls have their own problems of course but traditionally are more benign. That's why you leave your software's volume maxed (think of it as delivering "line level" to your amp) and control volume as you always have, at your amp. The output levels from one DAC's analog out to the next likely isn't too great, just as it isn't likely too different from one CD player to the next.

The Dragonfly and Headstreamer, both being headphone-oriented but with an audiophile conscience, include digitally-controlled analog volume control. Something on the computer (music player app?) retains its volume control interface but instead of delivering a lower relative volume to the DAC delivers full volume and invokes an analog volume within the Dragonfly/Headstreamer hardware. Don't ask me how any of that works.

Sumflow's picture
No effect

Quote:
deckeda :> Quit the music player and the computer acts like it always has.
The Dac only acts on the music player.  It has no effect on MOG, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, Google phone or any other audio source.  Even thou everything has to pass through Halide HD to get from the USB to the pre-amp?

dalethorn's picture
DAC -vs- MOG and other services

When we say the DAC acts only on the music player, is that because the music player has selected a specific driver or sound processor to send its output to the DAC, whereas the rest of the system isn't calling that same driver/sound processor for its output for the other services?

deckeda's picture
correct

Only dedicated music players will provide the ability to "link up" with an external DAC. A web browser or Spotify app for example has no understanding of what an external DAC is ...

The other way to do it (i.e., send everything through the external DAC) would be to setup the computer OS' audio out to use the DAC by default. And you still would need to setup the software player to use it (which is no big deal.)

Sumflow's picture
Numbers

Quote:
deckeda :> Quit the music player and the computer acts like it always has.
When we go audio out of a computer with an optical cable, isn't that just numbers out?

deckeda's picture
Nope.

Optical connectors and cable such as TOSLink has a physical/mechanical advantage of being immune to electrical interference and other issues like capacitance, voltage loss etc.

What it gains are disadvanatges in suspectibility to other physical attributes such as getting pinched (!) and whatever else challenges light transmission. And it still has a physical length limitation before it begins to lose connectivity with whatever's next in the chain.

The practical issues however, are that for a given DAC that accepts both optical and electrical inputs, one may be more susectible to jitter than the other, or react with a given cable more than the other, leading to performace differences between the two inputs. Numbers ain't numbers.

There are also often resolution differences. Some DACS or computer cards will limit their TOSLink to 24/96. Others may put that limitation on their digital coax port but not the TOSLink. And so on.

And all of that assumes the computer is delivering "perfect numbers" out, which it may not if it's RAM-starved, the storage HD is being asked to do two things at once, the CPU is overburdened trying to decode a lossless file while playing and doing something else, etc.

JadenKrosis's picture
Volume control?

I have the Halide DAC HD in my computer audio system and I`m not clear on this discussion regarding volume control. I turn everything on and listen to music and as far as I know there are no issues with volume.

Mind you I am a newbie to this so for all I know I`m listening to half a system.........

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