Recommended Components: 2018 Edition 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 sister website, which is edited by Michael Lavorgna.


Auralic Vega: $2799 ★
The elegant-looking Vega D/A processor is housed in a slim, brushed-aluminum enclosure and has a front panel dominated by a wide, rectangular, yellow-on-black OLED display. The rear panel offers single-ended and balanced outputs, and five digital inputs: transformer-coupled AES/EBU on an XLR, two transformer-coupled coaxial S/PDIFs on RCAs, one optical S/PDIF on TosLink, and a high-speed USB2.0 port. The AES/EBU and S/PDIF inputs handle 16- and 24-bit data with sample rates up to 192kHz; the USB port also operates with sample rates of 352.8 and 384kHz, and will accept DSD64 and DSD128 data. A Sanctuary audio processor upsamples PCM input data to approximately 1.5MHz and 32-bit depth, and implements four reconstruction filters for PCM data and two choices of low-pass filter for DSD data. Though it required several hours from cold before sounding its best, the Vega combined outstanding low-end weight and high-frequency extension with an exceptional sense of space, said JA, who also noted measured performance that was beyond reproach. "It's DSD and digital done right!" he exclaimed. (Vol.37 No.2, Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty: $8950
Ayre may not be the only consumer-audio manufacturer whose digital processors have found success in pro-audio settings, but their QX-R Twenty—a DAC whose 100-step digital-domain volume control and 11-strong phalanx of digital inputs make it suitable for use as the hub of an all-digital domestic system—distinguished itself by creating the analog master for the LP version of Stereophile's most recent commercial recording project (Sasha Matson's Tight Lines). The Ethernet-friendly, Roon-Ready QX-5 Twenty has at its core ESS's new ES9038PRO chip, supplemented with proprietary Ayre filters running on a Xilinx FPGA chip. Used in his own domestic system, the Ayre at first impressed JA with its "[D]etail. And more detail," and although the Ayre never overstepped its bounds in that respect, the combination of QX-5 Twenty plus MBL Corona C15 amps and Rockport Avior II speakers "resulted in a slightly relentless quality," compelling him to play music "at a lower level than I'd been used to." Adding to his system the Ayre KX-5 Twenty preamp and disabling the Ayre DAC's digital volume control ameliorated the forwardness, and contributed to JA's conclusion that "feeding audio data over my network to the QX-5 with Roon . . . rather than USB connections, is the way forward." Writing from his fortress of testitude, JA declared that "Ayre's QX-R Twenty digital hub offers superb measured performance." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

Benchmark Media Systems DAC3 HGC: $2195
"The [Benchmark] DAC1 was a tough act to follow. So, apparently, is the DAC2. Where would the DAC3 land?" Thus did JCA lay the groundwork for his review of Benchmark's DAC3 HGC (the last three letters designate this as the audiophile version, with a headphone amp and two analog inputs), which supports files up to 24/192 and DSD64, the latter as DoP (via USB). The design of this most recent Benchmark DAC was motivated by the availability of a new chip from ESS Sabre, the ES9028PRO, said to offer superior filter choices as well as active harmonic compensation, itself intended to reduce even further the levels of second- and third-harmonic distortion when compared with the Benchmark DAC1 and DAC2. That said, after rigorously comparing the DAC3 HGC with his own Benchmark DAC1, JCA heard no differences whatsoever: The new, like the old, impressed him as a product of "astonishing fidelity and emotional expressiveness." The conclusion of JA's Measurements sidebar was similarly concise: "All I can say is 'Wow!'" (Vol.40 No.11 WWW)

Bryston BDA-3: $3495
The first Bryston DAC to offer DSD compatibility, the BDA-3 supports the SACD format via its four HDMI inputs, and DSD128 to DSD256 via USB. (PCM performance, including user-selectable upsampling in multiples of 44.1 and 48kHz, extends to 384kHz; DoP is also supported.) Twin AKM DAC chips are used, as are completely separate paths for PCM and DSD data. Using an Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player to listen to SACDs through the Bryston BDA-3, LG remarked that "spatial performance was sensational, with wider, deeper soundstages than heard from my SACD player on its own," and praised the Bryston's overall performance for delivering "superbly effortless, delicate, subtly revealing, tube-like analog output from a variety of digital file formats and sample rates." Writing from his test bench, JA singled out for praise the BDA-3's extremely low levels of noise and distortion and "superb" resolution—close to 21 bits—and concluded that it "offers measured performance that is as good as digital can get." Remote control adds $250. (Vol.39 No.12 WWW)

Chord Electronics DAVE: $12,488
The DAVE—an acronym for Digital to Analog Veritas in Extremis—derives from the work of Chord designer Rob Watts, whose Watts Transient Aligned (WTA) filter is claimed to eliminate the timing uncertainty associated with conventional DACs of comparatively limited processing power. And the DAVE's processing power is prodigious: As JA explains, "Watts ended up with a 17th-order noise shaper (!) with 350dB dynamic range (!!) in the audioband, equivalent to 50 bits resolution (!!!)." In his system, the DAVE, which is compatible with PCM up to 32 bits/768kHz and DSD up to DSD512, sounded so good that it tore editor JA away from editing: "Darned if I didn't have to go sit in the listening chair, so compelling was the sound produced by the DAVE." In particular, he praised the DAVE's "superb re-creation of soundstage depth, its sense of musical drive, and the clarity with which it presented recorded detail." Reporting from his test bench, JA wrote: "Even if I hadn't auditioned Chord's DAVE, I would have been impressed by this DAC. Its measured performance is beyond reproach." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

dCS Network Bridge: $4250
Designed for use both with the company's top-of-the-line Vivaldi DAC and other DACs, the dCS Network Bridge is a Roon-ready, one-box network player that can serve as a bridge between the user's NAS (or other such file source) and DAC, and can also stream content from Tidal, Spotify, and other services. Ethernet, AirPlay, and USB inputs are offered, as well as BNC inputs for an external clock; outputs are a pair of dCS-compatible AES/EBU XLR sockets and a single S/PDIF RCA jack. Supported formats are PCM to 24/384 and up to double DSD, either native or DoP. (WiFi performance is limited to 24/96.) JVS found that even before the Network Bridge was fully warmed up, it delivered "instrumental textures [that] were far more palpable than before," compared to his own dCS Rossini DAC/player. After extended listening, JVS declared that the dCS's sound was "demonstrably superior to conventional computer-audio playback via USB," and described the Network Bridge as "an invaluable—I'd say indispensable—asset for owners of a Vivaldi or older dCS DAC." (Vol.40 No.12 WWW)

exaSound e38: $3849
This third generation of exaSound Audio's multichannel DAC (it was preceded by the e18 and e28) uses ESS's ES9028PRO chip, claimed to optimize performance at DSD128, DSD526, and PCM above 192kHz, and to permit faster, more stable switching of sampling rates. According to KR, "Like the e18 and e28, the e38 was silent in operation and absolutely stable. Unlike with them, I heard a newfound delicacy in the treble, unaccompanied by any added noise or brightness." Kal also reported his impression that the e38 offers "a greater dynamic range, especially with massed plucked strings." His conclusion: "The exaSound e38 is . . . an expression of the applicable state-of-the-art and a valid and valuable enhancement of my favorite DAC." (Vol.40 No.7 WWW)

Luxman DA-06: $4995
Among the earliest and most notable products to emerge from the burgeoning world of DSD streaming, the Luxman DA-06 is a full-size D/A processor built around a Burr-Brown PCM 1792A 32-bit converter chip. The DA-06 supports 2.8224 and 5.6448MHz DSD files and, via its USB input, PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz. Front-panel controls include the ability to select among three different PCM filters and between two sets of DSD rolloff characteristics, as well as to invert absolute signal polarity on the fly. AD, who acknowledges "DSD's prowess at communicating the subtleties of musical flow," observed that the Luxman sounded "generously explicit, [with] musical and sonic details in abundance and . . . a soundfield notable for its openness and general lack of murk. Still, the DA-06 had good substance, with a tonal character that was slightly—almost imperceptibly—warm and round." In his measurements, JA noted that the Luxman's low levels of harmonic and intermodulation distortion are offset somewhat by marginally poorer-than-expected jitter and noise-floor numbers—yet he declared that, overall, "the DA-06's measured performance is simply superb." AD's conclusion: "a damn fine-sounding D/A converter with virtually all music." (Vol.37 No.7, Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Meridian Audio Ultra DAC: $23,000
The MQA-compatible Ultra DAC offers both balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) outputs, virtually every kind of digital input you can imagine, and at least one you might not: a SpeakerLink connection, for use with Meridian's digital active loudspeakers. The Ultra DAC boasts a presumably futureproof card-frame construction, with separate dual-mono DAC cards, a high-current clock card, and a first-in, first-out (FIFO) buffer card, intended to minimize jitter. The power supply is linear as opposed to switch-mode. Alongside MQA, Meridian's flagship is compatible with PCM up to 24/384, as well as DXD files and DSD64 and 128. Signal-polarity inversion and EQ are available via the DAC's menu system, and the user has a choice of Long, Medium, and Short reconstruction filters. Used with PCM files, JA's first impressions of the Ultra DAC were of "a smooth sound with superb transparency and soundstage depth," and he praised its low-frequency performance as "powerful and extended." While listening to an MQA file of pianist Robert Silverman JA noted that "the MQA recording presented the width and depth of the Steinway in an uncannily realistic manner." Taking over from JA the listener, JA the measurer praised the Meridian's low distortion and good rejection of word-clock jitter. Both JAs agreed that the Ultra DAC joins dCS's Rossini and Vivaldi DACs in offering "the best sound I have enjoyed from digital recordings." (Vol.40 Nos.5 & 6 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio 780D: $15,000
Compared with Simaudio's Moon 650D and 750D transport-converters, the new 780D does away with physical media altogether, forcing those who desire real-time CD playback to use an external transport or a CD player with digital outputs. That said, also in comparison with the company's previous processors, the 780D adds both processing power—it can handle PCM files up to 384kHz and DSD up to 11.2896MHz, and its femtosecond clock is claimed to produce lower jitter—and power power: the 780D features the company's Moon Hybrid Power (MHP) power supply, with conductive polymer capacitors and other refinements. The 780D also includes Simaudio's Moon intelligent Network Device (MiND), a music-streaming application accessible via Ethernet or built-in WiFi. MF described the new Moon's improvements over the 650D as sounding "evolutionary rather than revolutionary"; however, when used with the best recordings at hand, "the 780D's transparency and graceful yet superbly detailed transient performance combined with an absence of . . . digital artifacts to produce what was among the most transparent, if not the most transparent digital sound I've heard." MF also observed that the 780D's manual is insufficiently helpful, especially regarding the MiND application, and that the product lacks, at least for now, support for Roon or MQA. JA uncovered nothing but "superb measured performance." (Vol.39 No.8 WWW)

MSB Analog DAC: $6995 ★
The MSB Analog DAC combines a high-tech chassis machined from a solid billet of aluminum—it stands less than 1" tall yet weighs nearly 30 lbs!—with a circuit architecture that allows the buyer to select among five digital-input options, two power supply options, a WiFi option, and more—combinations of which can bring the price to just under $12,000. (For $6995, you get one digital input and the stock power supply.) The Analog DAC supports PCM and DSD up to 384kHz, employs a custom-designed, linear-phase apodizing digital filter, and offers single-ended and balanced analog outputs. JI was impressed with the MSB's "thereness," observing that, "With a DAC like the MSB, you get a sense of someone hitting Play on a big reel of wide-track analog tape, after being fed by live mikes in a room." Notwithstanding a couple of performance glitches, both solved by in-the-field firmware updates, JI found it difficult to part with his review sample: "It notched my system up to a place where almost all digital sources had an organic, natural presence without sacrificing the accuracy and detail present in the best recordings." JA noted that high-level signals produced some low-level distortion products, but otherwise found the MSB rare in being "so well thought out and so well engineered." Optional Volume Control: $995. Optional Analog Power Base: $2995. UMT Plus: $5995. Optional Dual Signature Power Base: $4995. (Vol.37 No.4 WWW)

Mytek Manhattan II: $5995
Offering MQA, DXD, DSD256, and PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz, the Mytek Manhattan II is, in HR's words, "a complete digital and analog service provider." Add Mytek's optional phono card ($1495) and it becomes a phono preamp; add its Roon-ready WiFi card ($995) and it becomes a network streamer with maximum throughput of 24/192 and DSD64. Also on tap in the base model are a discrete, high-current headphone amp, and a user-selectable choice of seven different filters for CDs and PCM files. After sampling some of his favorite MQA files through the Manhattan II, HR asked: "If you were contemplating the purchase of a new DAC, why would you not want it to include MQA processing?" As for its performance with CDs, he wrote, "the Mytek let my mind rise and then look down on the musical stream, to observe the matrix of its notes and silences." Overall, he praised the "uniquely non-digital"–sounding Mytek Manhattan II for "[reproducing] recordings in a manner that seemed devoid of mechanicalness or electronic artificiality. Class A all the way." JA summed up the results of his lab tests in one short sentence: "Mytek's Manhattan II offers superb measured performance." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

Playback Designs Sonoma Merlot: $6500
Designed and released at the same time as Playback Designs' Sonoma Syrah music server (see elsewhere in this edition of "Recommended Components"), and housed in a similar-looking enclosure 12" wide by 3.25" high by 9" deep, the Sonoma Merlot stereo DAC offers the usual USB, S/PDIF, and AES/EBU inputs, plus Playback's proprietary PLink, for connection to their USB-XIII Digital Interface ($2500), which acts as a master clock in multichannel systems. On its USB and PLink inputs, the Sonoma Merlot provides up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM resolution, and does DSD up to DSD256; the remaining inputs are limited to 24/192 and DSD64. A headphone amp with a front-panel ¼" jack is also provided. After borrowing and using three (!) Sonoma Merlots—the extra two were required for surround sound—with the above-mentioned server and digital interface, KR praised the system's "beautiful sound." Using the Sonoma Merlot with his Baetis Prodigy X server and comparing that combo with his exaSound e38 multichannel DAC, KR found that "soundstage detail was equal" between the two, but that "the exaSound was a bit more forward," and the trio of Merlots "more naturally arrayed." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC: $5999.95
Instead of an off-the-shelf chipset, PS Audio's first DSD processor uses original code written into a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), the result being a system that converts all incoming data to double-rate DSD. In addition to asynchronous USB, the digital inputs include RCA, TosLink, and HDMI, and single-ended and true balanced analog outputs are provided. The DirectStream is built on a cast-alloy chassis with a glossy MDF top and a touchscreen from which all user controls can be worked. Firmware is user-updatable, as AD discovered while reviewing the DirectStream. He noted the DAC's "excellent pacing, flow, correctness of pitch relationships, and the like, as well as a consistently smooth and slightly laid-back sound." With some files, AD found the DirectStream just a little too laid-back—a condition mitigated in part by an early firmware update—but found its musicality beyond reproach. JA observed that the DirectStream "measures superbly well" in many ways, but was troubled by its poor linearity at low frequencies and its "ultimate lack of resolution" with hi-rez files. In a Follow-Up, RD tried the DirectStream DAC with PS Audio's PerfectWave Memory Player transport ($3995) and observed, "listening to familiar recordings . . . I heard more musical detail from them than I previously had." Subsequent to that audition, RD received and installed in the DirectStream DAC a new firmware upgrade, bringing his unit to v.1.2.1; he liked it. Following the firmware update to v.1.2.1, JA re-tested the DirectStream DAC and found evidence of a lower noise floor, increased low-level linearity, and a dramatic reduction in low-frequency distortion. Said JA: "Kudos to PS Audio for designing a product so that its performance can so easily be upgraded by its customers." There have followed three additional, successive firmware upgrades; in 2017, the most recent of these, named Huron, impressed JCA as "a clear improvement over [its immediate predecessor], which was already very good." (Vol.37 No.9; Vol.38 Nos. 2, 3, 5, 11; Vol.39 No.11; Vol.40 No.10 WWW)

T+A DAC8 DSD: $3995
The German-built T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8 DSD incorporates two distinct sets of D/A converters: DSD signals are treated to 1-bit conversion and are never converted to PCM, while PCM signals are treated to four DACs per channel in a double-differentiation configuration that, according to JI, is claimed to "perfectly cancel out converter errors and nonlinearities while increasing dynamic range by 6dB." Also on tap are four user-selectable digital filter options, independently adjustable volume for line and headphone outputs, and separate, user-selectable analog filters for DSD and PCM, the former intended to protect the rest of the user's system from ultrasonic noise. JI praised the DAC 8 DSD for "approach[ing] the performance of cost-no-object designs" and "represent[ing] good relative value." JA gave the DAC 8 DSC a clean bill of health, with particular regard to its "superb rejection of word-clock jitter via its PCM inputs," while noting that "its measured behavior and sound quality [are] so dependent on which of its four digital filters is in use." (Vol.39 No.10 WWW)

TotalDAC d1-tube-mk2: €9100
In a design field where cats are skinned in any number of ways, Vincent Brient of the French company TotalDAC takes a distinctive approach: for his D/A converters, he uses a discrete R2R ladder comprising some 200 hand-selected, very-high-quality discrete resistors per channel. The nonoversampling d1-tube-mk2 supplements this circuitry with an FPGA for various digital chores, an XMOS USB receiver (S/PDIF, TosLink, and AES/EBU digital inputs are also provided), and a tubed output stage. DSD (DoP) compatibility is a €320 option. All inputs support 24-bit/192kHz resolution except TosLink, which maxes out at 24/96. In the experience of ML, to whom digital recorded sound manifests itself as a sheet of glass between himself and the performers, "listening to music through the TotalDAC d1-tube-mk2, there was no glass; I could listen to my music as deeply as I wanted to go." Which pretty much says it all. (Vol.39 No.1 WWW)


Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature: $4889
In common with other Audio Note D/A converters and CD players, the DAC 2.1x Signature is built around a rather old-school 18-bit Analog Devices 1865 chip, said to be hand selected. Neither oversampling nor digital filtering is used, nor does the DAC 2.1x Signature contain an analog filter; according to Audio Note, the converter's use of a transformer as an I/V stage confers on the output signal sufficient treble rolloff. The tubed output stage is built with Audio Note's own copper-foil-in-oil signal capacitors, and signal output is handled by Audio Note Silver interconnect cable. Digital inputs are limited to S/PDIF (RCA) and AES/EBU (XLR); a USB input is not offered. After using it with Audio Note's own CDT One/II disc transport, AD praised the DAC 2.1x Signature for its sonic heft and substance, its analog-like momentum and flow, and, overall, a knack for "bringing out the goodness of good recordings, [although it] also had a knack for accentuating the badness of certain types of bad recordings." While testing the DAC 2.1x Signature, JA discovered distortion products, noise, jitter, and data truncation (24 to 18 bits), leading him to describe the Audio Note as "broken." (Vol.39 No.1 WWW)

CanEver Audio ZeroUno: $7995
While digital processors with tubed output sections aren't new, the Italian CanEver Audio ZeroUno breaks with convention by looking less like a DAC than a 2A3-fueled power amp, its two Coke-bottle–style CV181 dual-triode tubes enjoying pride of place atop a distinctly attractive case. Under its skin is an ESS Sabre32 ES9018S chip, its eight internal differential DACs used in a quad-sum configuration. Supplementing the ESS chip are multiple PCM and DSD filters of CanEver's own design, selectable via a menu system that also provides a switchable jitter filter, signal-polarity inversion, channel balance, and other niceties. The ZeroUno supports PCM to 384kHz and DSD64 and 128 as DoP; newer versions of the CanEver DAC are said to provide MQA compatibility, though that was not available at the time of our review. AD noted shortcomings in the ZeroUno's manual, especially when it came to navigating its software menu—we're told that this, too, has been refined in current production—but forgot those complaints after noting that the Italian DAC made his favorite files sound more colorful and "less hi-fi" than what he's used to hearing from digital playback. Art's conclusion: "I've heard no other digital product that succeeds quite so well . . . at letting music sound like music." Writing from his testing lair, JA noted the ZeroUno's "respectable measured performance," but cautioned users to keep its jitter and oversampling filters switched on. (Vol.40 No.5 WWW)

Chord Hugo TT: $4795
Chord's Hugo TT (for Table Top) combines a DSD-friendly USB DAC, headphone amplifier, and Bluetooth receiver in one distinctly styled and unambiguously chunky aluminum case. The user interface is distinguished by a volume control that uses not a knob or a pair of buttons but rather a captured glass marble that changes color as the loudness level changes, and a top-panel lens that gives the user a clear view of the color-coded sample-rate indicators inside. Key to the Hugo's performance are an internal chargeable battery—for power-supply isolation, not portability—and a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) running Chord's proprietary filter algorithms. Both on its own and in comparison with other DACs of his acquaintance, JI identified the Hugo's strengths as "detail, definition, and depth, with no distracting artifacts." He also declared: "The Chord Hugo TT sounded wonderful with headphones." In a dispatch from his test bench, JA said the Hugo "performed superbly well" on his jitter tests and was, all around, "an extraordinarily well-engineered component." (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Mytek HiFi Brooklyn DAC+: $2195
See JCA's review in this issue.

Prism Sound Callia: $2750
See JA's review in this issue.


Auralic Altair: $1899
From the makers of the Aries streaming bridge (see elsewhere in "Recommended Components") comes the Altair, which combines the functions of a DAC, a wireless streamer, and a headphone amp with a volume control. Available with an optional solid-state or hard-disk drive, the Altair offers no fewer than 15 digital inputs, and supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM as well as DSD256. Roon software is supported, as is Auralic's own Lightning app, but the Altair does not decode MQA files. After encountering a few hurdles in setting it up as a streamer, JI praised the Altair's good if somewhat "shy" sound. Writing from his test bench, JA reported resolution close to 22 bits, a noise floor free from power-supply–related spuriae, and very low levels of harmonic distortion: "superb audio engineering." (Vol.40 No.3 WWW)

Brinkmann Audio Nyquist: $17,990
One might expect analog-like sound from a D/A converter designed and manufactured by a maker of very-high-quality turntables and tonearms, and on that front, this MQA-compatible DAC—it also handles PCM to 384kHz and DSD128 (via DoP) and DSD256 (natively)—does not disappoint: As MF concluded, "The Nyquist would look and sound right at home next to a turntable." Built around a dual-mono pair of ESS ES9018S Sabre DAC chips, the Nyquist was designed to be future-proof; to that end, its digital module, which contains those chips and all other digital-processing hardware and software, can be easily removed from the rest of the Nyquist by undoing a few fasteners and pulling it out of the enclosure via the rear panel, thus facilitating updates, upgrades, upeverything. At the other end of the timeline, the Brinkmann's output stage includes two Telefunken PCF803 triode/pentode tubes per channel. After listening to the Nyquist in his system, Mikey described its sound as "smoother and more liquid overall, and somewhat warmer in the midbass" than a contemporary solid-state DAC of similar price. Summarizing the results of his lab tests, JA noted his disappointment with the Nyquist's "higher-than-usual levels of random noise," "[increased] distortion at low levels," and "[power]-supply–related sidebands," concluding that "you shouldn't have to make excuses for a DAC costing $18,000." (Vol.40 No.8 WWW)

Rega Research DAC-R: $1195
This new iteration of the plain-named Rega DAC (the original was reviewed in Vol.34 Nos.5 & 10 and Vol.35 No.2) contains changes both small—the DAC-R's longer case (for better power-supply layout), and improved firmware and power connectors—and large: Rega's digital processor now has an XMOS-based, 24-bit/192kHz asynchronous USB input. The internal DACs are twin Wolfson WM8742 chips implemented without upsampling, allied to an output section built with discrete transistors. A choice of three user-selectable filters is offered, though the still-compact case—8.4" wide by 3.1" high by 12.5" deep—lacks a headphone jack. Using the Rega as an adjunct to his home recording studio, JI found that, while listening to vocal feeds, the DAC-R added a little sugar—"a slight warmth or sweetening"—that he didn't hear through his trusted Benchmark DAC2 HGC. (JI: "I liked it. The singer preferred it.") He also found that the DAC-R "produced a wonderful soundstage, floating aural images in space where they should be, with plenty of detail and depth." Apart from some artifacts that appeared related to the chipset's less–than–Gulag Archipelago degree of isolation from the power supply, JA's measurements suggest that the DAC-R "offered measured performance that was beyond reproach." Borderline Class A. (Vol.38 No.8 WWW)


Arcam irDAC-II: $749 $$$
Fresh from flings with four- and five-figure DACs, JA reconnected with the hoi polloi via Arcam's affordable irDAC-II, introduced in 2016 to celebrate the British company's 40th anniversary. Built around the ESS ES9016 K2M DAC chip, the Arcam combines five digital inputs—two RCA, two TosLink, one USB—with Bluetooth connectivity and a headphone amplifier, and supports files up to DSD128. After using an AudioQuest Cheetah interconnect to wire the irDAC-II directly to his power amps—the former has its own volume control, thus eliminating the need for a preamp—JA was impressed by the Arcam's cleanness, clarity, and definition with a variety of tracks, though he noted a shallower-than-expected soundstage with some material, and felt its balance was a little lightweight—also a characteristic of the irDAC-II's headphone output. That said, via his AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, the Arcam outperformed the Meridian Explorer DAC: with one recording in particular, the irDAC-II "opened up a somewhat cleaner, clearer view into the recorded acoustic." As for the Arcam's Bluetooth performance, JA described it as "always listenable, if not completely involving." Writing from his lab, JA praised the irDAC-II as "a conventional but well-engineered D/A processor." (Vol.40 No.7 WWW)

K Lynx AES16 soundcard, Sonore ultraRendu.


Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC replaced by DAC3; Mytek Brooklyn, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil replaced by new models; Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum Bundle, Bricasti Design M1 DAC, Lector Strumenti Digitube S-192, all not auditioned in too long a time.

supamark's picture

You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

link to Ref 5 review measurements page:

John Atkinson's picture
supamark wrote:
You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

Judgment call on my part.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

waynel's picture

Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

John Atkinson's picture
waynel wrote:
Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

This amplifier didn't measure well but I defer to my reviewers' judgments on sound quality when deciding on the ratings.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

supamark's picture

fair enough.

Joe8423's picture

but I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste. I have no criticisms of how he does his job as editor of stereophile. I just can't get my head around his opinions of specific components/speakers.

John Atkinson's picture
Joe8423 wrote:
I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste.

I do have my hearing checked regularly, so it must be my taste :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mrkaic's picture

...this is a lovely artful reply. Congrats, dude!

Indydan's picture

This is off topic. But, Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

John Atkinson's picture
Indydan wrote:
Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

Art Dudley and Robert Schryer will be attending the Montreal show for Stereophile.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Indydan's picture

Thanks for the information.

FredisDead's picture

I have learned over the years not to take the rankings seriously, but these are essentially the same speakers, one designed for larger rooms and one designed for smaller rooms. I can't help but believe that the magazine is unduly influenced by John Devore's description of the O/93 as being built down to a lower price point. I don't think JD was fair to his own babies. Since it was Art Dudley whom was the major proponent of the O/96 and since he now has a smaller listening room, it would be great if he were to audition the O/93's in his new room and let us know if he hears a qualitative difference.

ken mac's picture

John [DeVore] has no influence on how we write or review his speakers.
I owned and reviewed many of Johns' speakers (owned 8, Super 8, Nines; reviewed Super 8s, 3s, Nines, O/93) long before I joined Stereophile.
The 2 speakers are not really alike, and not designed for different sized rooms, I believe. I've heard both many times and prefer my O/93s. John makes extremely natural sounding loudspeakers that work well in many systems, hence their popularity.

tonykaz's picture

I'm not much of a Fan of Vinyl nowadays but still... shouldn't there be a phono cartridge in the Same Class as that A+ Turntable for $30,000 or the one for $104,000 ? and.. are there only two "A+" Turntables ?

I can understand, of course. I was a Big Time Phono Cartridge Shop, once upon a time. I know fully well the difficulties involved in proper set up of Phono Cartridges and their Arm and all things tracking, etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc..... phew.

Committing to review Phono Cartridges is an elaborate set of burdens to put upon any competent reviewer lacking an Assistant ( like ole HP at TAS had ).

We at Esoteric Audio reviewed ( and had "Active" ) every phono Cartridge we sold, it was an exhausting commitment. Koetsu was A+.

Proper playback of RedBook via one of the many A+ Rated Players is a God Send compared to the Mechanical Complexity of revolving mechanisms and those mechanical transducers having astonishingly low output.

My two great Audiophile Philosophers ( HR & Steve G ) still have vinyl "lives" and rather vast vinyl collection commitments that I'm happily well past, their commentaries have substantial merit because they both have that vast history of experiences giving them the heft of "Earned Confidence" so.....

Stereophile should give them both the A+ Recommended placement : HR for Writing and Steve G for Vlog.

Tony in Michigan

z24069's picture

The list once again contains (many of the same) names of some great offerings from many manufacturers.

It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components. The K-01X (now K-01Xs), Grandioso K1, etc...are among some of the finest digital playback gear (same to be said for the 2-box and 4-box options) in the world. Clearly they belong on this list and the lack of focus on evaluating and listing these products with their peers definitely needs to be cured once and for all.

Great issue over all; you are however missing several key entries from Esoteric and others.

Thank you,

John Atkinson's picture
z24069 wrote:
It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components.

I have explained this before. If we haven't reviewed a company's products in the past 3 years, they are not included in "Recommended Components." With the changes in Esoteric's US distribution, we have been waiting for things to settle down. However, we do have a review of the Esoteric N-01 scheduled for our August issue.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Ola Harstrom's picture

Was interested to see how this would be rated.

Is HR's coverage (Gramophone Dreams #11 -->so it should perhaps have been in the Fall of 2017 edition...?) not considered a formal review?


DavidNC's picture

We read these 'best of' or 'recommended component' reviews with an interest as to where our own products stand against the opposition.
So I looked for Vitus.....nowhere !! Not on any list !!
So I searched Vitus (on this site) and found no mention since 2011 !!
Surely Vitus deserve a 'review' even if it's not liked ??

jazzman1040's picture

This list is chock full of traditional designs, but has few representatives of fully active speakers. Even for the LS50 you selected the passive version when all reviews I've read suggest the active version is far superior. I count only the KIi's as fully active? In a world where technology is advancing incredibly fast, where ease of use is of primary importance for all except for a select few (maybe only readers of Stereophile?), shouldn't this list include more than a few active speaker selections? Or maybe they don't measure up? For value it would seem they win hands down. On performance, most critics I've read agree that actives are the way to go. So what gives?

ajay556's picture

Ok so i see your digital ranking is out of whack. Someone looking at your list will assume a Pono player and a oppo player are superior to the Hegel Mohican is class b. I have the oppo and Mohican both at home. The oppo player with SACD is no match to my mohican in CD format (night and day difference). Additionally, i sold my PS audio DS stream player for the mohican CD player - far more musical. So please hire a new digital reviewer since you are completely sending wrong info to your audience. And if you still have doubts check out the reviews from HIFI plus and absolute sound on the hegel CD player