2013 Recommended Components Digital Processors

Digital Processors

Editor's Note: The sound of any particular CD transport/digital processor combination will be dependent on the datalink used—see "Bits is Bits?" by Christopher Dunn and Malcolm Omar Hawksford, Stereophile, March 1996, Vol. 19 No.3 (WWW). Unless mentioned, processors are limited to 32/44.1/48kHz sample rates. To be included in Class A+, a digital processor must be capable of handling DSD or 24/96 LPCM data.

We strongly recommend those interested in using a computer as a true high-end digital audio source visit our new sister website, www.AudioStream.com, which is edited by Michael Lavorgna.

Class A+

Ayre Acoustics QA-9: $3950
Housed in the same compact chassis as Ayre's QB-9 USB DAC, the QA-9 is a solid-state A/D converter intended to allow audiophiles to make high-quality rips of their LPs. It uses an Arda Laboratories AT1201 two-channel A/D converter chip and operates at sample rates up to 192kHz, outputting 24-bit data via either a USB 2.0 or AES/EBU connection. Setup was simple and, aside from the tedious task of eliminating LP surface noise, use was straightforward. The Ayre offered smooth highs, a clean midrange, and an excellent sense of space. JA summed up: "When recordings you love have never been issued on a good-sounding CD, it makes sense to rip them with Ayre's QA-9—it's the closest thing to a truly transparent audio component I have encountered." He bought the review sample. Pro version ($4750) includes DSD and Word Clock outputs on transformer-coupled BNC jacks. See "Fifth Element" in the April 2013 issue. (Vol.35 No.11, Vol.36 No.4 Read Review Online)
Ayre Acoustics QB-9: $2750
The QB-9 is an asynchronous transfer mode, USB-input DAC with Ayre's minimum-phase digital reconstruction filter implemented in Field-Programmable Gate Array. It uses a Texas Instruments TAS1020B chip, supporting sample rates up to 96kHz and word lengths up to 24 bits. High-resolution digital files "popped with life" and were marked by a natural flow and physical impact that allowed WP to form a deeper emotional connection with the music. JA: "Ayre's QB-9 is well engineered, offering excellent performance in both the analog and digital domains, and is not compromised by its having just a USB data input." JI felt the QB-9 exceeded the YBA WD202 and Benchmark DAC1 USB in terms of spatial detail, depth, and width, while adding a touch of seductive clarity. "Wow!" The latest version of the QB-9 uses an XMOS XS-1 microprocessor chip and supports sampling rates via USB2.0 up to 192kHz. Earlier QB-9s can be upgraded for $250. Compared with the Resolution Audio Cantata, the Ayre tended to exaggerate sibilants on some recordings but provided a warmer, fleshier midrange, felt JI. Compared to the NAD M51, the Ayre had slightly greater punch and better dynamic edges. Compared to the much more expensive MSB Diamond DAC IV, the QB-9 had a very slightly more aggressive midrange, but otherwise held its own, said JI. Stereophile's "Joint Digital Source" and "Overall Component" of 2009. (Vol.32 No.10, Vol.33 No.6, Vol.34 Nos.7 & 11, Vol.35 Nos.7 & 10 Read Review Online)
Bricasti Design M1 DAC: $8595
With first-class fit’n’finish and uncluttered exterior design, the dual-mono M1 DAC measures a rack-friendly 17" W by 2" H by 12" D and weighs 12 lbs. It offers four digital inputs (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, BNC, optical) and accepts sampling rates up to 192kHz, but forgoes a USB input, volume control, headphone jack, and remote control. The Bricasti's fast, detailed, powerful sound made the much less expensive Musical Fidelity M1DAC seem veiled, muffled, and slow, said JM. "The best digital playback I have heard," he concluded. Compared with the Weiss DAC202, the Bricasti was less forgiving of poorly recorded material, but had bigger, deeper, better-defined low frequencies; compared with the dCS Debussy, the Bricasti sounded very slightly warmer and was very slightly more transparent, said JA, who also praised the M1's state-of-the-art measured behavior. A firmware update (free to registered owners) adds minimum-phase digital filter options, digital phase inversion, and a digital volume control. Compared to its previous filter set, the Bricasti's minimum-phase sound was much richer, with more body, more coherence, and less grain, said JM. Used as a line source in place of Parasound's JC 2 preamp, the Bricasti produced a more coherent sound, with deeper, tighter, more powerful bass. "My personal best just got better," JM concluded. Now ships with asynchronous USB input (not yet auditioned). (Vol.34 No.8; Vol.35 Nos.2, 3, & 9 Read Review Online)
dCS Debussy: $11,499
The slim, sleek Debussy D/A processor has a digital volume control, offers a full range of digital inputs including a true asynchronous USB port, and uses the latest version of dCS's Ring DAC. The USB input was upgraded in the summer of 2011 to handle 176.4 and 192kHz data and in the summer of 2012 to handle DSD data. Though it lacked the sophistication of dCS's more expensive Scarlatti system, the Debussy had a fast and delicate sound, with powerful bass, dramatically solid, three-dimensional images, sensational rhythmic drive, and outstanding dynamics, said MF: "A very easy and enthusiastic recommendation." JA agreed: "It was a pleasure to test such a superbly engineered product." Compared with the Weiss DAC202, the Debussy offered greater resolution, transient snap, and low-bass weight, but lacked midrange warmth and overall body, said EL. Compared with the Bricasti M1, the Debussy was slightly less transparent, said JA; compared to the Classé CP-800, the Debussy offered more ambience and propulsive drive but lacked some lower-midrange energy. Compared to the MSB Diamond DAC IV, the Debussy sounded refined and very polite but lacked image precision and spatial depth, said JI. (Vol.34 Nos.1 & 12; Vol.35 Nos.2, 9, & 10 Read Review Online)
Grace m903: $1995
Made in the US, the m903 looks like earlier Grace models, but has a USB 2.0 input and an asynchronous-mode USB converter. It provides balanced and single-ended analog inputs, two sets of line-level analog outputs, and two front-panel headphone jacks. Though it couldn’t match the Antelope Audio Zodiac's punchy dynamics and speed, the Grace offered exceptional clarity and truth of timbre. Compared to Grace's m902, the newer version had a similarly warm, rich, full-bodied sound, but added greater resolution and delicacy. "The Grace Design m903 offers remarkable clarity, continuity, and roundness of tone, and is better in almost every way than the m902," praised JM. (Vol.34 No.12 Read Review Online)
MSB Diamond DAC Plus: $21,995
The Diamond DAC Plus (called IV when reviewed) is a solid-state, remote-controlled D/A converter with a volume control, a top-panel iPod dock, and an auxiliary analog input. In addition to its balanced and single-ended outputs, the MSB provides a complete array of digital inputs: coaxial S/PDIF (RCA and BNC), TosLink, AES/EBU, MSB Network, and USB 2.0 digital inputs operating in isochronous asynchronous mode with 24-bit word length and sample rates from 44.1 to 384kHz. Options, as reviewed, include: FemtoSecond Galaxy Clock (now included as standard, $4995 for retrofit to older Diamond DACs), Diamond Stepped Attenuator ($2995), Pro I2S input board ($995), USB2.0 384kHz input ($1395), and Diamond Power Base ($5995). With its smooth and detailed midrange, pinpoint imaging, and superb spatial performance, the Diamond DAC IV produced "the best digital sound" JI had ever heard in his system. JA was similarly impressed by the MSB's measured performance. (Vol.35 No.10 Read Review Online)
NAD M51 Direct Digital: $1999 $$$
The M51 is an attractive, full-width D/A converter with a digital volume control and useful front-panel vacuum-fluorescent display that indicates input, volume status, and sampling rate. It offers AES/EBU, coaxial, optical, USB, and two HDMI inputs, as well as analog (one pair each single-ended and balanced) and digital (HDMI) outputs. While all of the NAD's inputs can handle PCM audio data of resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, the M51 converts everything it receives to a pulse-width-modulation (PWM) signal at a sampling rate of 844kHz, controlled by a clock running at 108MHz. The NAD had a "wonderfully detailed and revealing sound," said JI. JA noted measured performance that was "almost beyond reproach." (Vol.35 No.7 Read Review Online)
Weiss DAC202: $6966
Made in Switzerland, the DAC202 is a digital-to-analog converter with an onboard volume control, a headphone amp, and a FireWire input. It offers AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and TosLink connections; uses an ESS9018 DAC chip; and can accept data resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. The Weiss had a smooth, delicate overall sound with a forgiving top octave, but lacked bass extension, jump factor, and involvement, said EL. Nevertheless, he concluded: "I think the Weiss DAC202 can easily offer Class A performance, especially for the audiophile who prizes its graceful, organic musicmaking." Compared with the Bricasti M1, the Weiss had a smoother overall sound but lacked bass definition, said JA. On the test bench, the Weiss proved the best-measuring D/A processor in JA's experience: "It just doesn’t get any better than this!" DAC202U ($7694, not auditioned) offers USB input. (Vol.35 Nos.1 & 2 Read Review Online)

Class A

Abbingdon Music Research DP-777: $4995 $$$
Built into a large (17.7" W by 4.7" H by 14.6" D), well-braced, beautifully finished aluminum chassis, the tubed DP-777 is a versatile digital-to-analog processor that incorporates separate chips for handling high-resolution files and "Red Book" CDs. It offers the user choices of: five digital filters (two "Red Book," three hi-rez), six sampling rates, two jitter-reduction settings, sampling rates up to 192kHz, and word lengths up to 32 bits. There are five types of digital input jacks; two types of analog output jacks; and an optional volume control and analog inputs, to allow the DP-777 to be used as a conventional preamplifier. A Russian 6H11P dual-triode is used as an S/PDIF input amplifier on two of the DP-777's digital inputs. AD: "The DP-777's characteristic sound was one of openness, a generous sense of scale, detail without artifice, and a barely perceptible but undeniably consistent timbral warmth." JA was disappointed by the DP-777's measured performance in HD mode. (Vol.35 No.3 Read Review Online)
Antelope Zodiac Gold Bundle: $4495
The Gold version of Antelope's Zodiac D/A headphone amp is housed in a gold-toned, shoebox-sized chassis and can accept PCM digital data sampling rates up to 384kHz. It offers multiple digital and analog input and output options, has a front-panel Mono button, two front-panel headphone jacks, and comes with a stylish, all-metal remote control. Compared to the more expensive Bricasti M1, the Zodiac Gold lacked precision, control, and treble extension, but nevertheless offered a full-bodied, musically satisfying, emotionally engaging sound with a warm midrange and a delicate treble, said JM. Price includes Voltikus power supply ($995). (Vol.34 No.10 Read Review Online)
Arcam FMJ D33: $3199.99
Designed and manufactured in the UK, Arcam's FMJ D33 is a remote-controlled D/A processor with three digital filters. It handles resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz and offers coaxial and TosLink S/PDIF inputs, an AES/EBU input, two USB ports, and a Type A port for iDevices. Though its treble had a bit too much bite, the D33's overall sound was clean and clear, with excellent low-frequency definition and extension, said JA. Switching to Filter 1, a minimum-phase filter with a fast rolloff, produced high frequencies that were better integrated with the midrange and bass. JA noted impressive measured performance. See JA's "Follow-Up" in the April 2013 issue. (Vol.36 Nos.2 & 4 Read Review Online)
Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB Mk.II: $3495
Like other Bel Canto products, the e.One DAC3.5BV is roughly half the width of a typical audio component and boasts a black-painted steel chassis with a beautifully milled faceplate of naturally finished aluminum. It accepts resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz and offers a wealth of inputs: RCA and BNC digital, balanced AES/EBU digital, TosLink, ST fiber-optic, and a single pair of analog RCA jacks. While its D/A section is similar to that found in Bel Canto's e.One DAC3, the DAC3.5VB has revised jitter-rejection circuitry for improved performance with high-jitter sources. Meanwhile, the optional VBS1 power supply ($1495) provides 12V DC and adds heroic LC filtering and energy storage. EL was most impressed by the Bel Canto's ability to produce big soundstages with exceptionally quiet backgrounds. Adding the VB-REF power cable ($495) opened up those stages even more, reduced treble grain, and lowered the perceived noise floor. On the test bench, the Bel Canto exhibited high resolution and low jitter. The Bel Canto traded the sweet tone of Weiss's DAC202 for greater overall clarity and cleaner highs; compared with the dCS Debussy, the Bel Canto lacked some bass, but offered a warmer, more musical sound, with blacker backgrounds and fleshier images, said EL. Review was of original version; Mk.II has improved power supply and a master clock with lower phase noise. (Vol.34 No.6, Vol.35 No.1 Read Review Online)
Benchmark Media Systems DAC1: $995 $$$ ✩
Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB: $1195 ✩
Benchmark DAC1 HDR: $1595
Features two front-panel headphone jacks, RCA single-ended and XLR balanced analog line outputs that are switchable between line level, trim-pot set, calibrated level, and variable level. Compared to the three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14, JM found the DAC1 to be "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth." A terrific value, feels JA, thinking the DAC1 is a great way of getting modern sound from a DVD player or an older CD player. JA discovered superb measured performance in both the DAC1's digital and analog domains, and decided, "Whether considered as a standalone D/A converter or a versatile headphone amp, Benchmark's DAC1 is an audiophile bargain." The USB version adds a USB 1.1 port to take audio data directly from a computer at sample rates up to 96kHz and bit depths up to 24. Additional improvements over the standard DAC1 include: two gain settings for the headphone amp, a defeatable muting of the line outputs, and high-current output drivers for the XLR and RCA outputs. Used as the primary digital source in JA"s system, the DAC1 USB offered a "very appealing" sound, with smoother highs and less grain than the original DAC1. Problems arose with the original sample, however, when using the Benchmark to play back 16-bit files from either a PC or a Mac via the USB connection. Subsequent modification of the DAC1 USB's firmware has eliminated dropouts of 16-bit audio data below –70dBFS while preserving the Benchmark's "superbly transparent soundstaging, clean high frequencies, and powerful lows," said JA. Compared to the YBA WD202, the Benchmark via USB had a slightly more forward, natural, precise sound, said JI. DAC1 PRE (discontinued in January 2013) adds a pair of unbalanced analog RCA inputs. It offered a sound that was "slightly toward the lean side of neutral," said ST. In terms of dynamic shadings, tonal color, and control flexibility, the Benchmark's performance was "remarkably close" to that of the best dedicated line-stage preamps. JA agreed: "As an analog preamplifier, the DAC1 PRE is about as good as it gets, measurement-wise." The DAC1 HDR offers slightly better build quality than earlier models and adds a motorized Alps volume potentiometer. National Semiconductor LM4562 op-amps are used throughout its analog stage, as well as Teflon RCA connectors. Though it maintained the tonal balance of earlier DAC1s, the HDR proved more musical and engaging, with a bigger soundstage, better solidity and separation of instruments in the stereo image, and better treble resolution, said EL. The Benchmark was tonally similar to the Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB, but lacked the more expensive DAC's high-frequency clarity, bass depth, and soundstage size, felt EL. Compared to the NuForce CDP-8, the DAC1 produced a slightly richer sound with more air and less bite, said WP. Compared with the Peachtree iDac, the Benchmark offered greater clarity and control but was less forgiving of poor recordings, said JI; compared with the Musical Fidelity M1CLiC, the Benchmark offered greater resolution and accuracy; compared to the NAD M51, the Benchmark was just as detailed, but lacked some finesse and body, said JI. Compared to the much more expensive MSB Diamond DAC IV, the DAC1 USB produced a harder, more congested midrange, and had trouble controlling complex imaging, said JI. (DAC1, Vol.26 No.7, Vol.27 No.5, Vol.29 No.4, Vol.33 No.11 Read Review Online; DAC1 USB, Vol.31 Nos.1, 7, & 10, Vol.32 No.3, Vol.33 Nos.6, 9, & 11, Vol.35 No.7 Read Review Online; Vol.34 Nos.6 & 10, Vol.35 Nos.3 & 10 Read Review Online)
Bryston BDA-1: $2195
Bryston's first standalone DAC is a slim, rugged component with a simple, brushed-aluminum faceplate and eight digital inputs: two S/PDIF optical, four S/PDIF electrical, one AES/EBU XLR, and one USB 1.1 accepting signals with sample rates at or below 48kHz. It uses a Burr-Brown SRC4392 sample-rate–converter chip and a pair of 128x-oversampling, 24-bit delta-sigma Crystal CS4398 DAC chips. With its open highs, detailed imaging, deep soundstaging, and well-defined bass, the BDA-1 offered "the best-sounding digital playback" LG had ever heard in his listening room. Though the BDA-1 measured well overall, JA was puzzled by some very low-level noise modulation in the low treble. Partnered with Bryston's BDP-1 digital audio player, the BDA-1 produced enormous dynamic range, black backgrounds, and deep soundstages, said LG. Add $375 for BR-2 remote control. (Vol.33 No.2, Vol.34 No.6 Read Review Online)
CEntrance DACmini CX: $799.99 $$$
With a footprint to match Apple's original Mac mini, the CEntrance DACmini CX is a solid-state D/A processor, line preamplifier, and headphone amp with an external power supply. Its slim front panel holds an input selector, volume control, and 1"4" headphone jack. The DACmini's AKM 4396 DAC chip accepts signals with word lengths up to 24 bits and sample rates up to 192kHz via its coaxial input, and up to 96kHz via USB. Though it lacked the resolution and bass impact of the much more expensive dCS Debussy, the DACmini offered a big, bold sound that was forgiving of poorly recorded material. Compared to CEntrance's own DACport, the DACmini offered better low-bass control and greater treble extension, said EL. Available Mods for $99.95 each: black-anodized finish; Headphone Linearity; Rock and Roll; Variable Output. (Vol. 34 No.12 Read Review Online)
Classé CP-800: $5000
D/A preamplifier with serial and asynchronous USB inputs. (See "Preamplifiers.") On the test bench, the Classé's digital input showed about two bits" worth less resolution than the current state of the art, but was excellent-sounding. (Vol.35 No.9 Read Review Online)
Halide Design DAC HD: $495 $$$
The DAC HD is a solid-state, bus-powered, plug-and-play digital-to-analog converter with tethered input and output cables. The circuitry, all surface-mount, is contained in a small (1.875 cubic inches), black-anodized, machined-aluminum enclosure, and is carried on a small double-sided printed circuit board. The input cable is Wireworld's Starlight USB (2m is standard; other lengths available); output is via two 6" lengths of silver-conductor cable terminated in Eichmann Silver Bullet RCA plugs. The 24-bit Texas Instruments TAS1020B USB interface chip operates in isochronous asynchronous mode with sample rates up to 96kHz. The DAC HD had an "analog-like ease to its sound," coupled with excellent reproduction of recorded space, said JA, who also noted "superb digital audio engineering." Compared to the AudioQuest DragonFly and CEntrance DACport LX, the Halide DAC HD offered slightly smoother highs and produced more spatial depth with stereo recordings, said JA. (Vol.35 Nos.8 & 10 Read Review Online)
Halide Design USB-S/PDIF Bridge: $395
In this utilitarian-looking USB-S/PDIF converter, a 6" USB cable terminates in a 3"-long black aluminum tube with, on its other end, either a 75 ohm BNC plug or an Eichmann Silver Bullet RCA plug. The Bridge gets its 5V power from the USB bus and feeds the USB datastream to a Texas Instruments TAS1020B receiver chip, enabling the Bridge to operate in asynchronous mode without the host computer having to install a driver program. It operated properly at sample rates of up to 96kHz, and produced a very clean datastream free from timing uncertainty; and with its relaxed, grain-free sound, the Bridge excelled at conveying recorded ambience and low-level detail, said JA. (Vol.33 No.12 Read Review Online)
Meridian HD621 HDMI Audio Processor: $2995 ✩
Meridian's HD621 HDMI Audio Processor smoothly integrates six HDMI inputs, HD audio processing, and SD upsampling with any Meridian processor that can handle a Smartlink/MHR, including the G61R, G68, C61R, and the 861. It extracts the PCM audio data from the HDMI input, FIFO-buffers the PCM, and up/downsamples it for output to the main processor. Upsampling is accomplished by "apodizing" filters identical to those used in the Meridian 808i.2 player-preamp. HDMI from the HD621 sounded "more detailed and open" than PCM data via the Oppo DV-980H's three S/PDIF connections, while "Red Book" CD sounded "superb" through the Meridian. "So rejoice—the HD621 brings HD audio to Meridian systems, and it sounds superb with non-HD sources as well," said KR. (Vol.32 No.9 Read Review Online)

Class B

Alpha Design Labs by Furutech GT-40: $549 $$$
The versatile GT40 USB DAC is housed in a handsome aluminum-alloy extrusion and offers a volume control, headphone amplifier, switch-selectable MM/MC phono preamplifier, and convenient analog-to-digital converter as well as digital-to-analog converter. Through its USB input, the GT40 matched the clarity of the HRT Music Streamers, but sounded bigger, more physical, and more open overall, with better definition of individual notes and more natural decays. Its phono stage was similarly big and open, but leaned toward the bright side, said AD. "The Alpha Design Labs–Furutech GT40 is one of those things no one saw coming from any direction: a hell of a good thing," he concluded. (Vol.34 No.9 Read Review Online)
Arcam rDAC: $479 $$$
The elegant Arcam rDAC is housed in a small aluminum case and uses asynchronous USB technology licensed from dCS. It offers S/PDIF, optical, and USB inputs, and uses a Wolfson 8741 DAC. While its USB input is limited to 24-bit/96kHz sampling, the rDAC's S/PDIF input can handle resolutions up to 24/192. Compared with Musical Fidelity's M1DAC, the rDAC sounded a bit livelier and offered more air and detail, said JM. rDackw wireless version available for $599. rWave (USB dongle for computers), rWand (dongle for use with iPhone/iPod Touch), both cost $99. Dongle and rWand are $50/each when purchased with rDackw. (Vol.34 No.12 Read Review Online)
AudioQuest DragonFly: $249 $$$
Using Gordon Rankin's "Streamlength" asynchronous USB technology and made in the US, the DragonFly measures 2.5" long, weighs three-quarters of an ounce, streams up to 24 bits and 96kHz, and plugs directly into the user's laptop or desktop computer. Included among its 107 internal parts are a Texas Instruments TAS1020 controller chip, a 24-bit ESS Sabre DAC, and a Burr-Brown headphone amp with a 64-step analog volume control. One-millimeter microdot LEDs enable the dragonfly emblem on the DAC's zinc-alloy case to change color in accordance with the sampling rate of the file being played: green (44.1kHz), blue (48kHz), amber (88.2kHz), and purple (96kHz). The DragonFly had a well-balanced overall sound, with good tonal color and superb texture, but lacked the spatial depth and timbral sophistication of the Halide DAC HD, said AD. "Class B with two thumbs up," sez SM. (Vol.35 No.10 Read Review Online)
CEntrance DACport LX: $249.99 $$$
CEntrance DACport: $299.99
USB bus-powered D/A processor with or without (LX) volume control. See "Headphones & Headphone Accessories," where it is rated Class B. Used as a single-input preamp between a laptop source and a pair of Rogue M180 monoblocks in EL's main system, the DACport produced a large soundstage, a slightly rolled-off but grain-free treble, and a tube-like midrange. Compared to the Benchmark DAC1 HDR, the DACport lacked resolution and bass weight, but always sounded musical and tonally balanced. LX version sounds clearer, more transparent, and is rated Class B as a D/A processor. A less expensive version of CEntrance's DACport, the LX dispenses with that model's volume control and can be used as a regular USB D/A processor. Like the original, the LX operates in adaptive isochronous USB mode rather than the theoretically better asynchronous mode, but nevertheless performed well on the test bench, showing no jitter-related sidebands. Compared to the original DACport, the LX offered a similarly smooth and grain-free treble, but was slightly clearer and more transparent. However, the LX couldn’t match the smoothness or superb sense of space provided by the significantly more expensive Halide DAC HD. "CEntrance's DACport LX offers superb sound quality at an affordable price," concluded JA. (Vol.33 Nos.6 & 10, Vol.35 No.10 Read Review Online)
Musical Fidelity M1DAC: $799 $$$
The M1DAC digital-to-analog converter uses two dual-differential Burr-Brown D/A chips, has a choke-regulated power supply, and offers coax, TosLink optical, AES balanced, and USB inputs, as well as standard RCA and balanced XLR outputs. While its USB input is limited to 16-bit/48kHz data, the M1 can handle any S/PDIF signal at sample rates up to 192kHz. With its astonishingly low noise floor, the M1 produced outstanding low-level resolution, crisply articulated transients, rhythmic certainty, and tonal purity. "A stunning bargain," ST decided, adding that this DAC "goes for a song but has a very, very low noise floor. The sound quality is highly resolving and, at the same time, non-fatiguing." Compared to the Rega DAC, the M1DAC lacked tonal richness but sounded lighter and quicker, with an airier top end and more space between the notes, said ST. The M1DAC demonstrated superb rejection of jitter on all its inputs and offered overall measured performance that was close to the state of the art, found JA. Borderline Class A but "You will need a very, very good system to realize how great this DAC is!" warns ST. Latest version has a revised power supply and uses the popular Texas Instruments TAS1020B USB receiver, operating in the optimal asynchronous mode, to handle resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. While the measured performance of the original M1DAC was marred by low-level power-supply spuriae, the latest sample produced a much lower noise floor, found JA. (Vol.34 Nos.3, 5 & 6, Vol.36 No.1 Read Review Online)
Musical Fidelity V-DAC II: $379 $$$
The V-DAC II is the same size and shape as the original and uses the same Burr-Brown DSD1792 chip and SRC4392 upsampler, but now incorporates the asynchronous USB-to-S/PDIF converter found in Musical Fidelity's V-Link. The machined aluminum of the Mk.II's front and rear panels replaces the V-DAC's drab black and garish lettering, giving the new model a much more mature, no-nonsense look. Incoming data are reclocked and upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz. Compared with the original, the Mk.II had a quicker, smoother, more agile overall sound, with greater resolution and a sweeter treble, said ST. "Need you spend more on technology that moves so fast and obsoletes so quickly?" asks ST, adding that the Pangea power supply from Audio Advisor is a worthwhile upgrade. Compared to the Halide DAC HD, the V-DAC II offered slightly more extended low frequencies but sounded drier and less controlled, said JA. On the test bench, the V-DAC II was almost beyond reproach. "Extraordinary!" JA exclaimed. (Vol.35 Nos.1, 8, & 9 Read Review Online)
Peachtree DAC•iT: $449 $$$
Housed in a small (6.5" W by 2.5" H by 6.5" D) aluminum case, the DAC•iT uses an ESS Sabre24 9023 DAC chip and supports all PCM-output audio codecs. Via its USB input, the DAC•iT supports resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz (but not 24/88); via optical, it supports up to 24/192 (but not 24/88 or 24/176). Though it lacked the resolution and clarity of the Benchmark DAC1 USB, the Peachtree combined a slightly soft top end with a slightly warm midrange for a "wonderful, relaxed, analog-like" sound, said JI. "If you"re spending under $500, or even up to $1000, this is a DAC you have to hear," he concluded. "Makes a powerful case for not paying more," adds ST. (Vol.35 No.5 Read Review Online)
Rega DAC: $995 $$$
Rega's DAC measures just 8.4" W by 3.1" H by 10.5" D and sports an attractive aluminum-and-steel case with a reflective front panel. It offers two coaxial, two optical, and one USB input, as well as 10 digital filters: five for data rates of 48kHz and under, five for rates up to 192kHz. While it operates in the adaptive USB mode and its Burr-Brown PCM2707 USB receiver chip is limited to resolutions/sample rates of 16-bit/48kHz, the Rega DAC "had a richness, a fullness of tone, an analog sense of ease, that I had not hitherto heard from digital, save for SACD," said ST. Compared to the Musical Fidelity M1DAC, however, the Rega DAC lacked some air and openness in the top end. JI was puzzled by its warm balance but ST is adamant that the Rega DAC is a reference product: "Probably the most analog-like sound Sam has heard from a DAC. The filter settings allow the user to change the sound—significantly, says Sam, slightly according to Rega. Sony was right: CD forever!" Compared with the Peachtree iDac, the Rega had a warmer, fuller sound, but lacked clarity and accuracy, said JI. JA's measurements confirmed that the Rega DAC operates in isochronous adaptive mode. The Rega's respectable measured performance was marred by supply-related jitter sidebands that may have contributed to the DAC's weighty low frequencies. (Vol.34 Nos.5 & 10, Vol.35 No.2 Read Review Online)
Wavelength Proton: $900 $$$
Designed by Gordon Rankin, the Proton is a solid-state DAC built into a small (4" W by 2.5" H by 5.75" D), attractive aluminum extrusion. It has a single USB type B input, operates in isochronous asynchronous mode, handles resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz, and uses a Wolfson XWM8721 DAC chip that also incorporates an analog volume control and headphone amplifier. Though it was a bit less dynamic and dramatic than Wavelength's more expensive Cosecant, the Proton had a naturally colorful and textured sound, said AD, who bought the review sample. "An easy recommendation," he said. The Proton's limited dynamic range is due to the use of a battery supply with limited voltage capacity, JA noted. Compared to the AudioQuest DragonFly, the Proton sounded slightly less brilliant, lacking some treble extension, openness, and presence, said AD. (Vol.34 No.10 Read Review Online; Vol.35 No.10 Read Review Online)

Class C

HRT Music Streamer II+: $349.95
HRT Music Streamer II: $179.95 $$$
Though nearly identical to the original HRT Music Streamer USB DACs, housed in 4"-long (Streamer II) and 5"-long (Streamer II+) extruded-alloy sleeves, the II and II+ versions include upgraded power supplies, USB transceivers, and D/A chips, handling sample rates up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution. Compared to the original models, the new HRTs sounded bigger and richer, with more saturated tonal colors, especially in woodwinds, brasses, and voices, for a "realer, incontrovertibly more involving sound," said AD. Compared to more expensive DACs, however, the HRTs lacked openness and body. Nevertheless, AD concluded: "Just buy the thing and get on with your (musical) life." (Vol.33 No.12 Read Review Online)
Sonos Connect: $349 ✩
Sonos Connect:Amp: $499 ✩
More sophisticated than the Squeezebox," said JA. The user-friendly Sonos system sets up its own proprietary, encrypted audio network and can even dispense with the partnering computer if necessary, working with a network-attached storage hard drive that can operate as a standalone source of media files. In addition, Sonos" original CR100 controller ($399) has a full-color 3.5" LCD screen, allows quick and simple navigation of music files on up to 16 network devices, and provides all the metadata associated with each track. Installation "couldn’t have been easier," said JA. While he found the ZP80's analog outputs to be adequate for use in noncritical applications, JA felt the Sonos performed best with its digital output feeding an external DAC. Rating refers to the performance of the ZP80's analog outputs. Testing of the new ZP90 and ZP120 versions continues the recommendation. The ZP90 is now called the Sonos Connect. Review was of the very similar ZP80 and ZP100, respectively. While the ZP120 (now called the Connect:Amp) resembles Sonos's original ZP100 in using a class-D output stage, it offers slightly more power (55 vs 50Wpc), replaces the linear power supply with a switching supply, and provides more robust wireless networking capabilities. Though limited to sample rates of 44.1 and 48kHz, the ZP120 exhibited a well-managed gain architecture and performed admirably on the demanding high-frequency modulation test, found JA. Remote control app for the iPhone and iPod Touch dramatically improves user interface. (Vol.29 No.10, Vol.33 No.4 Read Review Online)

Class D

Apple AirPort Express: $99 $$$ ✩
While the Airport Express works only with iTunes v4.6 or later (running on both PCs and Macs), is limited to 16-bit data, and functions only at a 44.1kHz sample rate, the combination of iTunes and the Airport Express offered an easy way to pipe CD-quality music around the entire home. "The beauty of this unassuming component," said JA, "is its S/PDIF data output, which allows the Airport Express to assume a respectable role in a true high-end audio system." However, its lack of an internal clock can lead to the first couple of seconds of songs being missed with DACs that are slow to lift their mutes. (Vol.28 No.5 Read Review Online)
ASUS Xonar Essence ST: $209.99 ✩
ASUS Xonar Essence STX: $199.99 ✩
Soundcards compatible with PCI (ST) and PCI Express (STX) personal computers running the Windows XP, Vista, and 7 operating systems (Macs not supported). The Xonar Essence boasts a specified signal/noise ratio of 124dB, and its analog output circuitry is shielded by a grounded metal cover, preventing RF interference from contaminating the audio signal. In addition, the Essence draws its power from a 4-pin socket separately connected to the PC's power supply, thus isolating the analog circuitry from the PC's motherboard. The soundcard offers a headphone output, a line/microphone input, and standard and optical S/PDIF digital outputs, but there is no digital input. D/A conversion is handled by a high-quality 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM 1792. Though the Essence could not support 88.2 or 176.4kHz files through its analog inputs, JA was impressed by the card's weighty lows, clear midrange, and airy highs: "I can unreservedly recommend the Xonar Essence as the least expensive means of extracting true high-end sound from a PC." A driver update guarantees bit-perfect playback from the digital output at all sample rates up to 192kHz, and, unlike with the earlier driver, ASIO-compatible applications take exclusive control of the audio device. (Vol.33 Nos.1 & 9 Read Review Online)

Class K

M2Tech Young DAC, Musical Fidelity M6, Lynx AES16e soundcard, exaSound e18 DAC, Mytek Stereo192-DSD.

Class Deletions

Benchmark DAC1 Pre, Logitech Transporter & Squeezebox Touch, Peachtree iDac, Bel Canto USB Link 24/96, HRT Music Streamer Pro, all no longer available; Music Hall dac25.3, Wavelength Cosecant not auditioned in too long a time.

guitarist9273's picture

The Beats Solo HD is now a Stereophile reccomended component... That sounds like a (funny) joke. They're certainly attractive looking & very stylish, but they sound very...well, bad. They're Class D...but I'm genuinely curious as to why they'd be included at all.

There are a lot of decent choices when it comes to headphones in the portable/sealed-on-ear-headphones-under-$300 category, now, that it's hard to see the B&W P3 and the Beats Solo HD making it onto the list. (Anyone interested in heaphones should check out Stereophile' sister online publication on personal-audio/headphones---InnerFidelity.)

Thanks for this awesome compilation, by the way! I sincerely enjoyed reading through such a wide sampling of great loudspeakers, amps & such. The balanced objectivity is always refreshing, considering other publication's purely subjective approach.

RobertSlavin's picture

Being able to see the photos of the components next to their descriptions, as found in this online version of recommended components, is nice.

However, Stereophile used to charge for this section online. Why is it giving it away for free now?

There's not a tremendous amount of money in magazine publishing. I'd prefer that the magazine make a reasonable amount of money from this section.

John Atkinson's picture

RobertSlavin wrote:
Stereophile used to charge for this section online. Why is it giving it away for free now?

Unless I am having a senior moment, we never used to charge for on-line access to Recommended Components. In fact, we have only been making it available in its entirety on-line since 2012, which is when we launched our free iPad app.

And regarding charging for it, my bottom-line policy is that the magazine's content should be available free on-line.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Poor Audiophile's picture

Thanks for that JA!

EU-USA Stereophile Fan's picture

Maybe some other EU makers could have been included such as Phonar (Germany) or PMC (UK)

John Atkinson's picture

Maybe some other EU makers could have been included such as Phonar (Germany) or PMC (UK)

"Recommended Components" exclusively concerns products that have been reviewed in the magazine. In turn, to be reviewed in Stereophile, a product needs to be available in the US; see  www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/307awsi/index.html.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Glotz's picture

WOW, I love it!  

I think I have memorized the entire RC over the years, and seeing each component again (some for the first time) is wonderful!  

I wonder who went through the trouble of procuring all of those photos for RC online.  

I won't even pretend there will be photos (for the next RC) in the magazine.  I imagine it would be 500 pages long... 

Ariel Bitran's picture

photos were gathered by myself and reformatted by Jon Iverson.

Downforce's picture

Has the excellent Emotiva ERC-2 been discontinued?  And for JA, the link you posted isn't working.  Thanks for the lists.

John Atkinson's picture

Downforce wrote:
Has the excellent Emotiva ERC-2 been discontinued?

Not according to Emotiva. It's there in Class C of Disc Players.

Downforce wrote:
And for JA, the link you posted isn't working.

Fixed. Thanks.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

stereomag's picture

Wow! Here they (Stereophile) go again. Still no review of any Accuphase preamps. Why is that, Stereophile?

weitn's picture

M30.1 got impressive reviews from Stereophile and Absolute Sound and recommended by both. I have auditioned it and ordered a pair the other day. Out of curiosity, what happened to the M40.1? It was listed in the 2012 recommended list.

destroysall76's picture

Great recommendations, but I'm curious in the LS50 from KEF. Is it really that much better of a speaker to be a part of the Class A (Restricted LF) over the Harbeth P3ESR and the Proac Tablette?

Also, is the Rega RP1 the better table buy this year over the Project Debut Carbon?

mkrzych's picture

I've read here that Dali Zensor 1 are in class C (Exteme Restricted LF), so according to your judge those are considered not entry level speakers, am I right?
If so, do you have any suggestions for the speaker cable matching or positioning for these little babies to sound the best? Currently I have Marantz CD5004/PM6004 connected to them over the QED Strand 79 speaker cable. They are on Soundstage Z22 stands.
Is it anything I can do to improve this gear in your opinion?

Thanks for any suggestions.

MykhailoM's picture

Good audio cables are surely essential part to any serous audiophile as they deliver a very sensitive signal between your audio gear as it has been said in this page. I have listened to quite a few well known brands such as Russ Andrews cables QED Signature etc. and more often than not the price reflects its qualities. As anything else in audio gear, cables need auditioning on your system. If possible grub 4 or 5 pares from your local dealer in a price range £300 to £600 from different brands and at your own comfort have them checked, I'm pretty sure you will get different results and the better components you have the more evident it will be. In my auditioning experience I prefer small exotic brands, to me they deliver a very good sonic result. I can change components etc. but cable will stay as they are so revealing. Keep your options open and DO audition on your system or at your local Hi-Fi dealer.

MykhailoM's picture

Everything must be auditioned either interconnects cables or audio components, your ears will be your best judge.