Bryston BDA-3 D/A processor

In the February 2010 issue of Stereophile, I reviewed Bryston's first standalone digital-to-analog converter, the BDA-1 ($1995). Five years later, Bryston released the BDA-2, which replaced the BDA-1's 24-bit/192kHz Crystal CS-4398 DAC with a pair of AKM DAC chips in balanced mode. In a February 2016 Follow-Up (footnote 1) I reported that the BDA-2 deepened and widened the BDA-1's soundstage, among other performance gains.

Yet the BDA-2 could not decode digital files encoded in DSD, a high-resolution digital format that has won interest because it offers music recorded with excellent clarity, realism, and dynamic range. I first heard a knockout DSD recording in one of Sony's exhibit rooms at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. Engineer Cookie Marenco, the founder of Blue Coast Records, played a multichannel DSD recording of Mahler's Symphony 1 using a Sonoma Workstation, an EMM multichannel DAC and controller, five Pass Laboratories amplifiers, and five Sony SS-AR2 speakers. I was stunned by the music's realism, extraordinary dynamic range, and wide, deep soundstage. I couldn't tell if the stunning clarity, ambience, and dynamics I was hearing were due to the high resolution of DSD or the fact that I was hearing a multichannel mix (or both). To find out, I dragged Stereophile's multichannel expert, Kal Rubinson, back to Sony's suite, but if he came up with an answer to my question, I never learned it. That said, he raved about the demo in his May 2013 column, calling it "a system of bracing simplicity" that "possessed, simultaneously, clarity, coherence, and spaciousness."

Which brings me to Bryston's new DAC, the BDA-3 ($3495), which can process both PCM and DSD files. When I heard that it also has HDMI inputs—the only interface standard that can transfer DSD data from SACDs—I hurriedly requested a review sample.

In 2015, as I reviewed the Mark Levinson No.585 integrated amplifier, my Las Vegas DSD epiphany was confirmed. The No.585's internal DAC was able to process DSD files via USB to produce the same richness and coherence of musical detail I'd heard at the 2013 CES. But the No.585 lacked the HDMI input needed to accept DSD files from SACDs.

Michael Fremer experienced the same frustration while reviewing Simaudio's Moon Evolution 780D DAC ($15,000), which also lacks an HDMI input. Surveying his "wall full of SACDs," he lamented, "it's beyond frustrating to know that all that hi-rez music is still locked out, unable to be decoded by this well-built, well-engineered, superb-sounding, and otherwise versatile DAC." While the 780D's USB 2.0 Type B input was compatible with three DSD sample rates, it could not accept DSD from SACDs.

Why does the SACD format require an HDMI connection? Sony, which partnered with Philips to develop the Super Audio Compact Disc and now licenses the format to other manufacturers to make SACD drives, designed its firmware to prevent DSD hi-rez data from being copied via any connector that could be connected to a digital recorder of any kind. Only connection via the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) was permitted, because of its handshaking capability and its then-exclusive use with video monitors. The BDA-3 not only has an HDMI input—it has four. All I needed was an SACD player with an HDMI output. So, for this review, I bought an Oppo BDP-103 universal BD/DVD/SACD/CD player.

While its controls and aluminum case resemble those of Bryston's earlier DACs, the BDA-3 has three visible differences: its front panel is 5/8" taller; its connectors include four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output; and its front-panel display includes an extra column of LEDs to indicate DSD signal rates. The first two stacks of LEDs display the eight PCM sampling rates the BDA-3 can process, while the third column shows the sampling rates for DSD64 (2.8224MHz), DSD128 (5.6448MHz), and DSD256 (11.2896MHz). These LEDs glow green if the incoming DSD signal is formatted as DSD-over-PCM (DoP), amber if native DSD. A user-controlled upsampling feature can increase PCM data rate in multiples of 44.1 or 48kHz but does not alter DSD data. (Upsampling cannot be applied to USB or HDMI inputs.)


In all, the BDA-3 has 10 digital inputs: four HDMI, two USB 2.0 Type 2 asynchronous, one AES/EBU, one optical (TosLink), and two S/PDIF (one RCA, one BNC). This leaves room for an IEC-320 C14 socket for the detachable power cord, a trigger input for power/standby, three two-way control interfaces (RS232, Ethernet, USB Type B), an HDMI output for video throughput, and two pairs of analog outputs (RCA and XLR).

The BDA-3's various digital inputs support different file formats and sample rates. The S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs handle PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz, but not DSD; the optical input, PCM up to 24/96; and the HDMI inputs, PCM formats up to 24/192 and DSD64 from SACD. The BDA-3's asynchronous USB 2.0 Type B inputs are the most flexible, being compatible with PCM digital sample rates up to 32/384 and all three DSD resolutions, but not DSD from SACD. The BDA-3 does not support MQA, or multichannel Dolby Digital or DTS.

Processing Technology
To reduce jitter, the BDA-3 strips the embedded clock signal from the incoming digital datastream and reclocks it with its own high-precision master clock. PCM and DSD formats are handled by separate circuit paths—no internal DSD-to-PCM conversion is done before the datastream reaches the DACs. The BDA-3's two 32-bit AKM DACs process DSD both natively and in DoP. Once converted to analog, the signal is amplified by Bryston's "proprietary discrete class-A op-amps," which drive the BDA-3's audio outputs.

Internal Construction
Lifting off the BDA-3's top panel reveals, behind the left side of the front panel, a toroidal transformer and a power supply said by Bryston to be highly regulated. A ribbon cable connects the front-panel controls to the larger of two printed circuit boards (PCBs) for input switching. Also on this PCB are multistage voltage regulation and the power supply's electrolytic capacitors. Above this main PCB and attached to the rear panel are two daughterboards: the top one contains the circuitry for the four HDMI input and one HDMI output connectors, the bottom one the circuitry for the two asynchronous USB 2.0 Type B connectors. To the right, another smaller PCB contains the twin DACs and the class-A, balanced analog output stage. The BDA-3's input receiver, sample-rate converter, DAC, and output stage are independently regulated to prevent interaction and thus any resulting jitter. Traces appear carefully routed to reduce the risk of capacitive coupling and further reduce noise and distortion, especially for the low-voltage analog signals leaving the DAC.

The main PCB is made of double-sided glass- epoxy with clearly printed component markings. The surface-mount components populating the PCBs include high-quality, 0.1%-tolerance metal-film resistors and polystyrene capacitors. Soldered and other gas-tight mechanical connections are used for the signal paths. All electrical inputs are galvanically isolated to minimize the noise from source components. The BDA-3's parts quality and assembly are topnotch—it should run smoothly for a lifetime. Bryston offers a five-year warranty for the BDA-3, including parts and labor.

Installing the Bryston BDA-3 in my system involved only finding a place for it on a shelf and plugging in various interconnects. I ran balanced and unbalanced interconnects from the BDA-3's analog outputs to a Mark Levinson No.526 preamplifier. To play digital discs, I connected to the BDA-3's corresponding inputs a Wireworld Starlight coaxial cable, run from my Bryston BCD-1 CD player's S/PDIF output; a Bryston AES/EBU cable, from my Bryston BDP-2 media player; and an HDMI cable, from my new Oppo BDP-103 disc player's HDMI 2 output. This enabled me to switch the No.526 preamp between the BCD-1's Crystal CS-43398 DAC and the output of the BDA-3's AKM DACs. I ran a USB link from my Lenovo P50 laptop to one of the BDA-3's USB 2.0 Type B connectors, to be able to stream DSD and PCM files from the laptop using JRiver Media Center 22.

The BDA-3's manual describes additional setup steps, including the installation on my laptop of Bryston's Windows USB driver, as well as how to configure the JRiver Media and Foobar 2000 player softwares. The manual is clearly written, with big diagrams. Other installation challenges can be addressed by e-mailing or calling Bryston support.

The real work of setting up the BDA-3 involved not the DAC itself, but correctly configuring the digital source components feeding it—the laptop, SACD player, and digital media player. For the better part of three days, I consulted with experts at Bryston and Oppo so that I could correctly manipulate the setup menus of the three sources (see sidebar, "Setting Up Digital Source Components to Output DSD").

Footnote 1: See Stereophile, February 2016, Vol.39 No.2, p.137.
Bryston Limited
US: Bryston Service USA
30 Coventry Street
Newport, VT 05855
(802) 334-1201

georgehifi's picture

This could be one that pulls me away from Multibit, very nice measurements JA must be one of the better ones I've seen.
Pity/shame Bryston didn't see fit to include the digital VC that the AKM dac is capable of. Hopefully in the BDA-3 MkII??

"Output Volume (PCM, DSD) The AK4490 includes channel independent digital output volumes (ATT) with 256 levels at 0.5dB step including MUTE. This volume control is in front of the DAC and it can attenuate the input data from 0dB to –127dB or mute. When changing output levels, it is executed in soft transition thus no switching noise occurs during these transitions. It takes 7424/fs from FFH (0dB) to 00H (MUTE). The attenuation level is initialized to FFH by initial reset. Register setting values will be kept even switching the PCM and DSD modes."

Cheers George

MusicEar's picture

Using the internal volume inside the DAC means DSD has to be converted to PCM(according to AKM data sheet) which negate the effect of DSD recordings. Besides, it is preferred to use the pre-amp volume as opposed to digital to improve the SNR for low level details.

georgehifi's picture

DSD does nothing for me because there's no music available that I like that is "Native DSD".
Give me DXD (pcm) if in the future it can get the music content I like.

Cheers George

MusicEar's picture

Check out pure DSD recordings direct from DSD masters

strettonufo's picture

Really curious how playing back music files in all formats supported by the DAC via HDMI compares with playback via USB. Disappointed that the review didn't get into this.

ToeJam's picture

Thanks for the Bryston review. If it had MQA I'd consider purchasing it.

Will you soon be reviewing the Mark Levinson components used in this review? I'm interested in the 536 and 526.

enrique majluf's picture

Hi everyone, maybe it's silly what I'm going to ask. I request help to know if the Bryston BDA-3 being turned off can transmit video passthrough HDMI thorought. That is from a blu ray connected via HDMI to the BDA-3 and then from this to the TV / LED?


sfage's picture

“Hey man. What’s that box do?”

Let’s pretend it’s the late 60s, early 1970s. Bell-bottoms, long-ish hair, mom and dad had the console stereo and television extravaganza replete with the obligatory liquor cabinet. Rock and roll, right? Colour television? Fancy! Then, we all had that one friend that was an audio nut. So we called him / her up and asked where to begin. “Well, since it’s the start of the signal chain, you’re going to need a good turntable with the best needle you can afford.” So, the two of you got in the car and drove down to the audio shop. You’ve decided on a turntable, and now you begin to go down the signal chain. Preamplifier? Yup, I understand that. Then there’s another box and all it has on it is a power switch, a light bulb and not much else. “Hey man. What’s that box do?”

Flash forward to today, and guess what? Not much changes.

I recently purchased the Bryston BDA-3. Was it a financial tick? Sure. Good stuff costs money. But, look at it this way: a lot of people think of a DAC as an add-on. An after-thought. Well, it’s not. It’s like that 1973 turntable. It’s the start of the signal chain. It basically “is” that turntable.

The price is up there... but it won't sink your battle ship.

The BDA-3 is relatively attractive as far as DACs go. It has a serious face plate and chassis that’s made out of real metal. So far so good. It has a bunch of lights on it. Tells you what it’s doing. Groovy. There is a metric tonne of connectivity. There’s a whole bunch of HDMI, USB, optical, coaxial and other stuff. I can’t think of what one could possibly need beyond that.

Is it eye candy? I dunno. The point of the exercise, here, is what the thing does. Right? “You must ween yourself off the eye-candy roller-coaster, grasshopper.”

The BDA-3 is musical. That’s the heart of the matter. It’s very musical. The sound stage, depending upon the recording, is really excellent. For example, I was listening to Macy Gray’s “Stripped” last night. The presentation of that recording is old school. It’s “as if” the engineer had two microphones and a quarter inch mastering reel at 15ips (the truth is, it’s a binaural recording). But, that’s it, baby. I was going to say “awesome” but that’s not really 1970. In the 1970s, the word awesome was taken literally. Hmm. Wait. The sound stage is awesome. Never mind. I’ll stick with that.

Time to move on. It’s 2018, right?

My academic background is music composition. I have written for all manner of ensembles in all sorts of configurations. It was my job: make sounds that work, and don’t turn in to a traffic jam for orchestra. While that may not matter to most people, it matters to me. I’m the guy standing there in dress rehearsal with the score in hand and a pencil. So, I am listening to the BDA3… like that.

Yeah, I’m grumpy… and the violin section is annoyed because it doesn’t sound like Mozart. Did they practice their part before they came to rehearsal? Well… umm… you know… NO.

I flipped on Markus Eichenberger and Daniel Studer’s “Suspended”. Clarinet or bass clarinet, and double bass. There are schwack of extended techniques for each of the instruments. Slap tongue, key clicks, harmonic sorts of stuff, col legno battuté, open string and fingered snap pizzicato. All sorts of funky stuff that I can guarantee you didn’t hear on the hit parade in 1973… or the TV commercial: we were all supposed to buy each other a soft drink.

The bass clarinet and double bass are in the room. Like, really… in the room. See, I love stuff like that. It’s like dress rehearsal, the final run-through and the audience is in the lobby sloshing vino ten minutes before the ushers open the doors and start handing out concert programs.

Structured and non-structured contemporary improvisation is not for everyone. However, we’re talking about the way the BDA-3 is going to handle this, right? Yeah well, here’s a really big seller: the BDA-3 is percussive. Slap tongue on the bass clarinet has that really great “thoop”. The percussiveness is as important as the pitch itself. They each have their own place in the sound of the action upon the instrument. The BDA-3 will give you that. All of it. All forms of pizzicato on the double bass is astounding. It makes you want to hear all of that stuff, more. The BDA-3 does percussion and percussiveness really, really well. In fact, I would almost say its this DAC’s strongest point.

Streisand? Barry Manilow? No no no. This is not that. In terms of choice of music, you came to the wrong show, brother-man.

Electronic and electro acoustic music: that’s another matter. I have been discovering some really cool contemporary Scandinavian and German Jazz lately. I found Thomas Strønen on Tidal a while ago. “I liked it so much I bought the company.” Oh wait, no, I bought the CDs. The other thing was shaving. Hippies don’t shave, or get haircuts.

Thomas Strønen’s “Pohlitz” is not like his other music. He’s a jazzer, generally… but this Cd is really cool. It’s not Jazz. It is what you might expect from a lot of electronic and electro acoustic music. There are musical “events” that happen and each of them must be accounted for, together, and separately. The BDA-3 will handle this panoply effortlessly. It separates these events and puts them where they are supposed to be on the sound stage. Each of the events sound good, and most importantly, sound musical. Remember, that’s why we’re all here.

My advice to Bryston is: go with what you know. The thing the BDA-3 does REALLY WELL is percussiveness. Does it do do percussion well? Yup. Really well. But remember, technically, piano and guitar are percussion instruments. The string is struck or plucked, and then it decays. But it’s not that it happens… it’s HOW it happens. It’s fast. The BDA3 is really fast. You know that comic book character that zips around the room and everyone else is slow-mo? The BDA-3 is fast, like that.

Does BDA-3 sing? Yup. You want Streisand? Go ahead. Violins in a section? Sure, why not? It’s awesome. You’ll want to buy the world a Coke. You want to go to the Copa Cabana? Go ahead. The BDA-3 will make you want to get out your tie-dye shirt and a pair of bell-bee dungarees. Maybe some Gene Simmons heels, too.

Shane Fage.

PS: The BDA-3 does not suffer bad recordings well. It won't fix bad recording engineering. In fact, "If any of you cats dropped the brown acid, make your way to the hospital tent, ricky-tick. It's a bummer trip, man."