Arcam irDAC-II D/A processor Page 2

Listening with Headphones
As it did in the big rig, the Arcam irDAC-II's headphone output offered, in absolute terms, a somewhat light balance combined with clean highs and an excellent presentation of recorded detail. It worked well with both the Audeze LCD-X and AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, less so with the Thinksound On2s, where the highs sounded a little aggressive. However, it could readily swing enough volts to drive the high-impedance Sennheiser HD650s to satisfying levels. But I needed to hear how it compared with other D/A headphone amplifiers.

717arcam.rem.jpgThe perfect comparison would have set the irDAC-II against Chord's Mojo D/A headphone amplifier ($599), which I favorably reviewed in February 2016, and felt had a warm sound with a well-fleshed-out midrange. Our review sample had long since been returned to the distributor, however, so I reached for Meridian's Explorer D/A headphone amplifier ($299), which Art Dudley reviewed in September 2013.

I connected the Meridian via USB to my MacBook Pro and played files with Pure Music 3.0. I needed to switch DACs as quickly as possible, so, as the original Explorer has an optical S/PDIF output, I could use it to feed the same data to one of the Arcam's optical inputs. I could then adjust the Meridian's output level with Pure Music's dithered volume control, which also affects the level of the digital data from the Meridian's optical output. Once I'd adjusted the Arcam's output level to match the Meridian's, therefore, I could adjust the volume with Pure Music without worrying that I would interfere with the level matching between the two DACs. All comparisons were performed with AudioQuest's NightHawk headphones.

Art Dudley had written of the Explorer's headphone output that the sound was "a little more opaque" than he expected, and while I've enjoyed using the Meridian on and off since his review, compared with the Arcam's headphone output, yes—it was a little opaque. The individual singers in Eriks Esenvalds's "A Drop in the Ocean," from the Portland State Chamber Choir's 2013 album of that title (16/44.1 AIFF master file), were less distinguishable than with the irDAC-II, the sound a slight touch more midrange-dominant. The Arcam opened up a somewhat cleaner, clearer view into the recorded acoustic, which surprised me—I'd expected the Meridian's use of a minimum-phase reconstruction filter to give it an edge in that respect.

The irDAC-II's low frequencies also sounded a bit cleaner than the Explorer's, with more subjective extension. In "The Afterlife," from Paul Simon's So Beautiful or So What (24/96 ALAC file, Hear Music/HDtracks), the low-pitched drums were better defined and had more impact with the Arcam driving the AQs. With my unreleased recording of organist Jonas Nordwall playing the Toccata from Widor's Organ Symphony 5 (24/88.2 AIFF file), both DACs did surprisingly well with this recording's high levels of very low frequencies. At climaxes, however, the Arcam better preserved the sense of space in the First United Methodist Church of Portland, Oregon.


The Meridian is excellent value for money—or it was until it was replaced, at the same price, by the MQA-capable Explorer2, reviewed by Jim Austin in June 2016—but the Arcam adds S/PDIF inputs and edges it out in sound quality.

Listening with Blue Teeth
I had last listened extensively to Bluetooth-sourced audio with Arcam's rBlink D/A processor. Sam Tellig reviewed the rBlink in December 2013, with a Follow-Up from me in March 2014. I was impressed with the rBlink, concluding that while Bluetooth audio sourced from my MacBook Pro using the aptX codec still didn't approach CD quality, "it was surprisingly listenable for much of the music I heard while auditioning the rBlink," especially with classical recordings. With my iDevices, however, which don't have the aptX codec, the rBlink's treble sounded coarser in loud passages.

That was pretty much my experience with the irDAC-II's Bluetooth input: always listenable, if not completely involving. Listening to Paul Young's early-1980s reading of Marvin Gaye's "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)," from No Parlez (256kbps AAC file)—a longtime favorite of mine for Pino Palladino's virtuosic fretless bass playing—the Bluetooth rendition sounded less strained through my Audeze LCD-X headphones when the music was sourced from the MacBook Pro than from my iPhone 6S. Similarly, the soprano voices in Esenvalds's "A Drop in the Ocean" sounded a touch on the shrieky side sourced from my phone. Via Bluetooth and a borrowed Android phone, the Paul Young track sounded pretty much identical to the same music sourced from the MacBook Pro, even—with signals approaching 0dBFS—with the distortion I measured using that phone as the source (see "Measurements" sidebar).

I still don't recommend Bluetooth for serious listening, but for background music, or social occasions at which people want to share the music on their smartphones, Arcam's implementation of it in the irDAC-II worked well.


Summing Up
I enjoyed my time with Arcam's irDAC-II. It's a good-sounding product at an affordable price. And if you think I damn it with faint praise by describing it as "good," think on this: It's been said that the good is the enemy of the great, and while the high-priced D/A processors I've been living with in my big rig for a long time undoubtedly sound great, even the least expensive of them costs almost an order of magnitude more than the Arcam.

The Arcam doesn't offer MQA decoding, of course, but whether or not that's an issue will depend on the format's catching on—and that, in turn, will depend on whether there will be sufficient "pull" from the potential customer base. The irDAC-II also lacks such useful features as a display of sample rate—but so did my go-to D/A headphone amplifier of many years, the original Benchmark DAC1, which cost $995 without USB input or $1195 with (it was discontinued in 2015). In May 2004 I described the Benchmark as "an audiophile bargain," and my colleague Erick Lichte described it in an e-mail, in a reckless disregard for clichés, as a "Swiss army knife of audio." The Arcam irDAC-II is both of those things—and, at $749, costs significantly less than the Benchmark!

US distributor: The Sound Organisation
1009 Oakmead Dr.
Arlington, TX 76011
(972) 234-0182

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:

But feel free to borrow the phrase, no problem.

tonykaz's picture


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