Arcam irDAC-II D/A processor

For digital playback, in recent months I've been breathing some rarefied air, pricewise. In December 2016, I reviewed dCS's Rossini Player and Clock, followed in May 2017 by Meridian's Ultra DAC, and in June by Chord's DAVE DAC. The Rossini Player costs $28,499 without the Clock, the Meridian $23,000, and though the DAVE is less expensive than either at $10,588, that's still a fair chunk of change. Even PS Audio's PerfectWave DirectStream DAC, which I bought following Art Dudley's review in September 2014, costs $6899 with the Network Bridge II, which hardly counts as "affordable."

High time, therefore, that I lived with a D/A processor priced more in reach of the cash-strapped middle class. Arcam's irDAC-II was released a year ago to celebrate the British company's 40th anniversary. It's an updated version of the irDAC (2013), and adds Bluetooth connectivity, a headphone amplifier stage taken from Arcam's flagship A49 amplifier, support for DSD128 files, and a high-performance ESS ES9016K2M DAC chip, but eliminates the USB Type A jack and the coaxial digital output. It costs $749.

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Description
The irDAC-II is a small box about the size of a thick paperback book, finished in black. Inset on the front panel is a small plate with a 3.5mm headphone jack and the sensor for the infrared remote control. Along the top of the front panel's radiused top edge are six LEDs, each of which glows green to indicate which input has been selected: USB, Optical 1 and 2, Coaxial 1 and 2, and Bluetooth. (The USB and Bluetooth LEDs glow red when no data are being received.) On the top panel are four pushbuttons: two to choose an input, two to raise and lower the output level. The rear panel has two pairs of outputs on RCA jacks, one pair fixed in level and one pair variable; two S/PDIF inputs on RCA jacks handling streams with sample rates up to 192kHz; two S/PDIF on TosLink jacks that are limited to 96kHz data; a Bluetooth antenna; a USB Type B input jack; the Power switch; and the input jack for the wall-wart power supply.

Operation simply involves choosing an input by scrolling with the top-panel buttons. If Bluetooth is selected, the relevant LED flashes purple while the user simultaneously presses the two input buttons to pair a smartphone, tablet, or PC. When the connection has been established, the LED glows a steady blue when music is playing. Simultaneously pressing both volume buttons mutes the irDAC-II's output, and the LED for the input in use turns orange. A second push of both volume buttons together lifts the mute. The remote control duplicates the top-panel functions, and adds transport control of a PC or Mac USB source via the Human Interface Device (HID) protocol.

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Listening in the Big Rig
As the irDAC-II has a volume control and I currently don't have a preamplifier, I plugged it straight into my power amplifiers with unbalanced AudioQuest Cheetah interconnects. The sound was good from the outset. The balance was overall a tad lightweight, though with good definition in the low frequencies. In "Don't Give Up," from Peter Gabriel's Secret World Live (16/44.1 ALAC file ripped from CD, Geffen), Tony Levin's double-stopped bass line punctuated by an underdamped kickdrum remained clean and clear. Billy Drummond's kick drum in "Followthrough," from the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous, which I recorded in 1998 (16/44.1 ALAC file from CD, Stereophile STPH013-2, no longer available), was well defined, despite its resonant tuning.

I wondered if the fact that the irDAC-II is powered by a wall-wart supply would limit its dynamics, but it reproduced the solitary conga drum that begins "Hotel California," from the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over (24/44.1 ALAC file ripped from DVD, DTS Entertainment 71021-51006-2-3), with superb slam. The individual tone color of Drummond's drums and cymbals in his solo on "Followthrough" were well differentiated, as were the various tuned percussion instruments providing the minimalist accompaniment to Peter Gabriel's hoarse vocal in "San Jacinto," from Security (16/44.1 ALAC file ripped from UK CD, Charisma).

Though the acoustic of Blue Heaven Studios, in Salina, Kansas, was readily apparent in "Followthrough," the soundstage was a little shallower than I'm used to with the PS Audio DAC. Playing Patricia Kopatchinskaja's fiery performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with MusicAeterna conducted by Teodor Currentzis (16/44.1 FLAC file ripped from CD, Sony Classical 88875165122—a tip of the hat to Jon Iverson for recommending this recording), the soundstage was again a little shallower than I expected, but the highs were more delicately rendered than the PS Audio and there was an appealing tactile quality to the sound of the admittedly large solo instrument. Perhaps Kopatchinskaja is a fan of the late Jascha Heifetz—the orchestra peeks around her shoulders just as it did around Heifetz on his recordings!

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I had no problem playing single-rate DSD files with the irDAC-II, using either the Aurender N10 or Antipodes DX servers. I have a secret love of Karen Carpenter's singing—her breath control rivaled Sinatra's in his prime—and in "We've Only Just Begun," from the Carpenters' Singles 1969–1981 (DSD64 file, A&M/Analogue Productions), her husky tones sounded appropriately intimate via the Arcam. And the complicated kick-drum pattern in this track didn't interfere with the subtly balanced bass guitar.

However, when I tried to play double-speed DSD files with the Antipodes, such as my recent purchase of Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt's superbly idiomatic recording of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas (DSD128 file, Ondine/HDtracks ODE1284-2D), the irDAC-II's USB input light turned red and there was no output. Sourcing the same DSD128 files from the Aurender via the same long Belkin Gold USB link, they played fine with the Arcam DAC, as they did when I substituted a short AudioQuest Forest USB link for the Belkin with the Antipodes. (The engineer who recorded Kopatchinskaja's Tchaikovsky could learn from Ondine how a violin should be recorded.) So either the Arcam or the Antipodes is fussy when it comes to handling high data rates via USB.

COMPANY INFO
Arcam
US distributor: The Sound Organisation
159 Leslie Street
Dallas, TX 75207
(972) 234-0182
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Who else should I ask?, am I asking the right person?

This Lamm Reference RIAA preamp for instance. Is it Class A Recommended? or is the Manufacturer claiming it to be well above Class A?

Seems like plenty of outfits are claiming their stuff to be Reference Class.

So, should we now expect there to be : Reference Class, Class A, Class B, Class C, etc?

Besides, is there anything in the Vinyl chain that could be Reference?, like a Clock traceable to WWV's HP Atomic Clock.

Maybe "Reference" is a "Tuning Fork".

Of course 16/44.1 Redbook would have to be a Reference, wouldn't it? and now 24/44.1 & 24/48 are useful References, aren't they?

How can a Vinyl Record be Reference, there are virtually no standards (what so ever) in the Vinyl industry or in Playback gear.

Un-less, what Chad Kassem says is true: most of the Vinyl being made is from the Digital Master ( which is of a Reference Standard ).

Confused Tony in Michigan

John Atkinson's picture
tonykaz wrote:
Who else should I ask?, am I asking the right person?

Right person but possibly the wrong thread, as this is the Arcam DAC review.

tonykaz wrote:
This Lamm Reference RIAA preamp for instance. Is it Class A Recommended? or is the Manufacturer claiming it to be well above Class A?

When you see the word "Reference" in a Stereophile review, it means that the word is part of the product's formal name, nothing more.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

it means nothing more, it's just a name, an arbitrary selection by the Company, no reference to any Established Reference.

I suppose, in short, it's BS.

Why do we have these ><)))))'> smells in Audiophile marketing?

I suppose this is why we need our JA & Tyll

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

"Besides, is there anything in the Vinyl chain that could be Reference?, like a Clock traceable to WWV's HP Atomic Clock."

Last time I checked, the Atomic Clock by HP will give very accurate results, but is not regulated for jitter. That's the inherent problem in converting Cesium streaming to other formats.

tonykaz's picture

You always seem smarter than me.

How'm I supposed to know about Cesium jitters?

I live in Fly-over country,

The god concept alone gives me the jitters, now I gotta worry about my clocks giving jitters.

Maybe I should return to my first love : Vodka

Tony in Michigan

Glotz's picture

Fo' sure. Great review and references, as I own many of the same Gabriel recordings referenced in the review. I really wish it had MQA.. but I am patient.

Might I make recommendation? Try Herbie's Audio Labs' products sandwiched between the rack shelves of your Target TT-5. I have, and for the absolute pittance in price, sooooo worth it. (Tens of dollars for the entire rack.. not hundreds.)

Platinum-cured silicone is really an amazing material for audio. Nothing like Sorbothane or other squishy products similar to that material. It actually 'de-couples' gear very well, and at a 1/100th of the cost of ball-bearing feet, etc. Their Grungebuster platter mat competes with the best mats out there, and is extremely reasonable in price as well. Any one using an acrylic platter should look into this product (if an aluminum platter is not financially feasible). I reeeeally want to see a turntable company use the products as a 'sandwich' filler some day.

Their website is 'meh', but it's about the products. (I have no relationship whatsoever with their company... just a customer.)

mrkaic's picture

...machine reviewed here. I was under the impression that this magazine has become a newsletter for the scientifically uneducated ruling class.

A few more reviews like this one and I will say "Bravo!"

tonykaz's picture

Good one, Mr. mrkaic !

mind if I borrow it, from time to time?

Tony in Michigan

ps. I might simplify it by say'n : Uneducated Ruling Class or Inherited Ruling Class. Either which way, I bow to your wisdoms.

mrkaic's picture

... is probably not a very common one and has nothing to do with politics and more with my perception of social power. For example, I think than rich anti vaxxers, clueless movie and music stars who pontificate about every moral panic they can think of (without having any scientific qualifications, of course), professional athletes, pundits and talking heads who talk about just any issue without ever doing any serious analytical work etc. are the true ruling class of today.

The Onion nailed this years ago: http://www.theonion.com/article/actual-expert-too-boring-for-tv-1764

But feel free to borrow the phrase, no problem.

tonykaz's picture

well,

I had to look up anti-vaxxers. ( my chiropractor is an anti-vaxxer, I'm not! ).

Tony in Michigan

Anon2's picture

I am a proud Arcam fan and loyal owner of the brand's products.

I am encouraged by the fact that the writer of this article saw fit to hook up this next generation Arcam DAC directly to his power amp. I am seeing more DAC/headphone Amps that allow a more budget-constrained consumer a quicker path to separates.

Keep making the hints. We'll keep taking them.

I have been an enthusiastic fan of Arcam DACs. I plan on continuing to purchase Arcam DACs. I do regret that they elected to discontinue the superb performance and portability of the r-Pac. The r-Pac has become "my stereo" (along with headphones) for most of the week.

There is one thing that I hope Arcam addresses. Perhaps they have addressed this issue. On the rDac, including two that I have owned, there is this strange clicking noise, and blanking out of the sound, when these devices are on certain outlets. This occurs through power strips where other electronics (TVs and audio gear) show no strange or similarly intermittent performance. A perusal of web postings shows that I am not the only reporter of this apparent defect of the rDac.

My dealer had to replace an rDac that had this problem. The replacement exhibits the behavior intermittently. I have learned to deal with it because, besides this problem, the rDac is a category-leading device.

I hope Arcam has fixed this. Perhaps we can get some Stereophile or manufacturer comments to this effect in this comments stream.

Besides this problem with the rDac, which I hope has not happened with successor models, Arcam is a superb brand offering great performance for the money (though I'm still to be sold on Class-G amplification).

wozwoz's picture

I cannot think of anything more inappropriate or off-putting in a high-end hi-fi product than the inclusion of wireless or Bluetooth. The very last thing I want in my personal musical sanctuary is to have my brain or body made the subject of unnecessary radiation that is known to damage DNA in scientific tests. And while Bluetooth is generally a low-strength power source, if it is close enough to your body, it has an effect, just like mobile phones or wi-fi routers. I don't use a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard for the same reason - they give me headaches / buzzing which I frankly don't need. Aside from the health reasons, why you would want your music compressed and distorted by low-res Bluetooth compression in a high-end hi-fi product is simply beyond belief, and serves to discredit both this product and its manufacturer.

labjr's picture

"Carpenters' Singles 1969–1981 (DSD64 file, A&M/Analogue Productions)"

Is there a version of this album that was an "Analog Productions" project and not just a DSD file that Acoustic Sounds is selling?

John Atkinson's picture
labjr wrote:
Is there a version of this album that was an "Analog Productions" project and not just a DSD file that Acoustic Sounds is selling?

No, it is the DSD version that Acoustic Sounds sells.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

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