Bryston BDA-3 D/A processor Page 2

With all source components properly configured, the BDA-3 functioned like a digital Rosetta Stone that I could control from my listening seat with Bryston's BR-2 remote control (a $250 option). Except for a nine-second delay when switching between USB inputs, switching among inputs was instantaneous. Unfortunately, the BR-2 dos not allow selection of the USB 2 input or any HDMI input.

A quick check confirmed that the BDA-3 was processing DSD and PCM files of different sample rates with ease, lighting up the correct LED on its front panel. To do this, I downloaded songs by Blue Coast Records artists Meghan Andrews and Marco Ferrero that had been recorded at different DSD sample rates, including "99" (DSD64), "Just Let Go" (DSD128), and Johnny Colorado" (DSD256). From 2L Records' HiRes Download Test Bench I downloaded DSD and PCM files, at various sample rates, of Tone Wik and Barokkanerne's performance, on period instruments, of Vivaldi's Cantata RV 679, "Che giova, il sospirar, povera core," for soprano, violin, and harpsicord. I also compared the DSD128 version of this recording through two different inputs of the BDA-3, AES/EBU and USB 2.0 Type B, and heard no difference in sound quality.

With my three source components successfully streaming DSD, I sat down to do some serious listening. I was eager to hear my SACDs decoded by a standalone, high-performance DAC rather than by my SACD player's internal DAC. Mind you, these SACDs already sounded quite good through the DAC of my eight-year-old Sony SCD-C555ES SACD player.


On DSD from SACD, the BDA-3's spatial performance was sensational, with wider, deeper soundstages than heard from my SACD player on its own. The enhanced three-dimensionality resulted in more precise positionings of instruments, voices, and sound effects in space, as I heard in the opening of "Breathe (in the Air)," from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (SACD/CD, Capitol CDP 5 82136 2), which filled my room with dive-bombing airplanes, sinister laughter, and the sounds of someone running across the room. Soundstages were widest and deepest in Duruflé's Ubi Caritas, from the collection Sacred Feast, with Paul Halley directing the unaccompanied choral group Gaudeamus (SACD/CD, DMP SACD-09). In addition, SACDs played through the Oppo BDP-103 and BDA-3 sounded more relaxed and smooth, and more involving than I could recall them sounding before.

Playing CDs, I enjoyed how the BDA-3's imaging abilities captured the ambiences of recording venues—eg, that of Gnomus, from Jean Guillou's performance of his own transcription for organ of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (CD, Dorian DOR-90117). The BCD-3 also conveyed the ambiences of more intimate recording venues, enabling it to separate tenor Gary Ruschman's voice from those of the other singers in John Atkinson's recording of Eric Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque," from Cantus's While You Are Alive (CD, Cantus CTS-1208). Similarly, the DAC enhanced the space around the drum kit at the end of "Nardis," from Patricia Barber's Café Blue (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 21810-2), placing Barber's voice center stage, her piano to the right, the drum kit to the left, and the double bass just behind the drums.

The BDA-3's dynamic range was fantastic. It easily rendered the in-your-face dynamics of David Bowie's whisper-to-scream "Putting Out Fire," from the Cat People soundtrack (CD, MCA MCAD-1498); the eerie synthesizer in Don Dorsey's "Ascent," from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops' Time Warp (CD, Telarc CD-80106); the rapid-fire piano scales that burst out of black silence in "The Handoff," from James Horner's Sneakers soundtrack (CD, Columbia CK 53146); the rim shots and drum beats mixed with shouts from the audience during Brady Blade's drum solo in "The Maker," from Emmylou Harris's Spyboy (CD, Eminent EM-25001-2); the deep, propulsive kick drum that opens and drives "Dreams," from Fleetwood Mac's The Dance (CD, Reprise 46702-2); and the red-hot rim shots from drummer Mark Flynn that open "Blizzard Limbs," from Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2). And I delighted again in hearing the pounding bass synth that runs through "Assault on Ryan's House," from Horner's score for Patriot Games (CD, RCA 66051-2). I was stunned by a number of passages in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic (SACD/CD, Deutsche Grammophon 02899 477 5198-2), a recording that captures the full dynamics of the orchestra's pulsating timpani and thunderous bass drum.

The BDA-3's highs were clean, open, effortless, grainless, and extended. Zofia Kilanowisz's lucid soprano in Górecki's Symphony 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with the composer conducting the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (SACD/CD, Polskie Radio PRSACD2), was entrancing and crystal-clear. Billy Drummond's wire-brushed ride cymbal at the beginning of "The Mooche," from the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), came across well, its characteristic metallic sound easy to identify. The BDA-3's excellent treble response let Meghan Andrews's eerie, feather-light soprano generate an unusually sad, lonely, but hopeful effect in her DSD128 recording of "Just Let Go" (Blue Coast Records download). Emmylou Harris's effortless and delicate unaccompanied soprano in "Calling My Children Back Home," from Spyboy, was distinct from Buddy Miller's soft tenor.


The BDA-3's reproduction of the midrange was equally effortless and clean, with superb rendition of instrumental colors. The timbres of the guitar and alto saxophone in the L.A. Four's Going Home (Japanese CD, Ai Music 3 2JD-10043) were natural and just right. So, too, was the Bryston's reproduction of the rich timbre of the solo bassoon that opens Herbert Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana, from Howard Dunn and the Dallas Wind Symphony's Fiesta! (CD, Reference RR-38CD). Buddy Miller's mando guitar accompaniment to Emmylou Harris's "Prayer in Open D," also from Spyboy, was energized by the detailed rendering of its timbre.

Male voices benefited from the BDA-3's clean processing, which produced a relaxed smoothness with no sign of stress or edge. James Taylor's voice in "Line 'Em Up," from his Hourglass (SACD, Columbia ACS 67912), was smooth, effortless, fluid, and sweet in a way I hadn't heard before. From the same album, Taylor's "Enough to Be on Your Way" elicited a deep, heavy feeling of sadness and anger not heard in earlier auditions. The BDA-3 easily resolved the layers of texture in the resonant voices of the Turtle Creek Chorale, a men's chorus led by Timothy Seelig, in their performance of John Rutter's "Lord make me an instrument of thy peace," on Requiem (CD, Reference RR-57).

When it came to low frequencies, the BDA-3 easily integrated deep bass notes with the sounds of other orchestral instruments, musically and spatially. In Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra's 24/176 PCM recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (CD, Reference RR-70CD), I could easily hear subtle changes in the pitches of timpani notes. The BDA-3's great pitch definition made it easy to follow organist Olivier Latry's pedal notes in the first movement of Saint-Saëns's Symphony 3, with Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra (SACD/CD, Ondine ODE 1094-5). And the Bryston fully reproduced the intense, raw, pulsing, raspy bass of David Hudson's didgeridoo in "Rainforest Wonder," from his Didgeridoo Spirit (Indigenous Australia, IA2003D).

Synthesized bass was cleanly and convincingly reproduced by the BDA-3 in all its grab-you-by-the-collar intensity. The deepest synth growls and pulses in "Attempt on the Royals," from Horner's Patriot Games, shook my listening room with its torturous mix of deep pulses, chimes, gongs, blocks, and snare drum. The BDA-3's reproduction of the heartbeat that opens and builds, in Pink Floyd's "Breathe," to a massive and subterranean climax was bewildering and thrilling. Similarly, the staccato deep-bass synth in "Something's Wrong," from Randy Edelman's score for the film My Cousin Vinny (CD, Varèse Sarabande VSD-5364), stunned me with its solid, gut-pounding impact

Organ music never sounded better than through the Bryston BDA-3. John Atkinson's 24/88.2 AIFF file of organist Jonas Nordwall playing the Toccata of Widor's Organ Symphony 5 delivered massive pedal notes with excellent pitch definition. Organist John Busby's performance of Herbert Howells's Master Tallis's Testament, from the compilation Pipes Rhode Island (CD, Riago 101), pressurized my room and rattled the metal radiator covers. The deep pedal notes in Gnomus, from Guillou's transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition, were focused and deep, rumbling the floor beneath my feet. And I was impressed with how the BDA-3 was able to retain the air around Nancy Keith's lovely soprano in Piè Jesu, from Rutter's Requiem, while simultaneously conveying the full weight of the massive, almost infrasonic pedal notes of the pipe organ.

While it was frustrating not to be able to play MQA files through the Bryston BDA-3, that didn't keep it from being the most versatile and best-sounding DAC I've heard in my listening room. It delivered superbly effortless, delicate, subtly revealing, tube-like analog output from a variety of digital file formats and sample rates, including DSD64 datastreams from SACDs. Although pricey at $3495, it's less expensive than some high-end, standalone DACs that can't process as many types of digital files.

The BDA-3 arrives from the factory ready to play more varied digital file formats than your digital source components are surely set up to deliver. For that reason, demand that any dealer or custom installer who sells you a BDA-3 be prepared to set up the rest of your system to be compatible with all of the formats and sample speeds your new Bryston can handle.

This versatility makes it an ideal reviewer's tool for evaluating other high-end gear. For that reason alone, I had no choice but to buy the review sample, and I recommend that the BDA-3 be listed in Class A+ of Stereophile's "Recommended Components."

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."