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How The DAC Got Its Groove Back

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DAC_Groove.jpgWhen I was a teenager, I remember saving up for a Rotel RCD-855 CD player, which was the best bang-for-your-buck compact disc machine for under $500 in the early 1990s. Once I made the investment, I needed another audiophile fix, bringing me to the Audio Alchemy DDP-1 digital to analog converter (DAC), which made a notable difference in sound. From then on, I was sold on the power of what a separate DAC and transport could do. Mark Levinson, Krell, Theta Digital and many others made, modified and tweaked out all sorts of rigs that could make a compact disc sound more "natural," more analog, or fill in whatever adjective you like. The truth of the matter was that those products back in the day benefited from better power supplies, better isolation, the best processors of the day and other goodies. It wasn't voodoo. It was better audio.

Additional Resources
• Read more original commentary like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• See related stories in our Source Component News section.
• Explore reviews of DACs in our Source Component Review section.

Roll the tape forward to the advent of the high-end AV receiver, which was in many ways created by David Del Grosso at DTS in the mid-1990s, and on to today and the numerous and often monstrous AV receivers that have inputs for everything, processing for every known format, huge power supplies, five channels of power and, you guessed it, increasingly high-end DACs. Only a few years later, the high-end AV preamp separated the parts of a receiver. This is similar to what happened with the CD player, resulting in a DAC and transport system. These AV preamps had more budget, physical space and power supply headroom to allow for the internalization of high-end DACs, which for a good ten years made the DAC the odd man out in many non-hardcore audiophile systems. There were still the EMM Labs and DCS products out there, but far fewer standalone DACs.

Today the DAC is back with a vengeance and its all Apple's fault. Their iPod, iPhone, iPad and Apple TV are amazing products in terms of their ease of use, convenience and industrial design, but the cheapie DAC inside makes them sound lousy in a revealing system. The fact is that most audiophiles are using some form of computer audio when running enlightened systems, but Apple leaves us all a bit short on audio quality without a little help. This is how the DAC got its groove back.

Today's DACs are a viable upgrade over units from, say, five years ago. Prices are down, yet features like HDMI inputs, reclocking, USB computer inputs and preamp functionality, including analog inputs, make DACs a compelling and somewhat affordable upgrade path for audiophiles today. Computer audio sources need external DACs. Blu-ray players that can play legacy audiophile sources like the Oppo BDP-93 and Cambridge Audio Azur BD-751 can be tweaked like I did back in the day with the Rotel and Audio Alchemy for hundreds of dollars. Stereo preamps can be replaced by DACs with volume controls and often with analog inputs, thus upgrading sound and processing power, with a simplifying effect on one's system. Players like the Oppo BDP-95 (their unit with better internal DACs) and the aforementioned Cambridge Audio come loaded with support for nearly every disc format other than HD DVD and also pack high-end analog DACs. These will process the latest surround sound formats in HD audio and output analog audio that allows an older, high-end AV preamp without today's internal surround sound processing to play back stunning DTS Master Audio and Dolby True HD. For about $1,000, your home theater gets a massive format and audiophile upgrade without having to take a bath on your older AV preamp. DACs are proving to be useful for many different configurations of both audiophile and home theater systems.

Wyred-4-Sound-DAC-2-DAC-Review-silver.jpgToday's DACs have improved greatly over the past five years. The chipsets are amazingly good, even in entry-level DACs on the market today. Amazingly, older DACs still sell for a somewhat premium price on eBay and Audiogon.com. Why this is, I am not sure. Yes, they are audio jewelry, but they are technologically boat anchors in terms of audio performance when compared with the top DACs on the market today. The list of hot DACs on the market today is long, with products like the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic $450 and the DAC Magic Plus priced around $650. Wyred 4 Sound's $1,500 Internet-direct DAC-2 is an absolute favorite DAC/Preamp and High Resolution Technologies' Music Streamer DAC is a $99 upgrade. Benchmark Media's $1,575 DAC1-PRE is what I use in both my living room and office system personally, as it is the perfect Apple or computer audio upgrade and digital stereo preamp. Classe's CP-800 DAC preamp (review coming soon) and NAD's preamp/DAC combo give audiophiles a reason to ditch their stereo preamps and other source components for a more higher-resolution, simpler solution. Companies like WADIA, April Music and a host of others are all in the game, making really impressive DACs today. It is one of the hottest segments in specialty AV.

Some readers ask whether they should add a DAC to their AV receiver or AV Preamp. The Oppo or Cambridge upgrade path using an older receiver or AV preamps 5.1 analog input is a good one, but audio-loving AV receiver owners often will find one or two "stereo pass-through" inputs that are stripped-down inputs of the type you'd expect to get in a true audiophile product. Simply adding a product like an Apple TV and an affordable DAC is a real-world, affordable upgrade that many will find hard to beat. Today's higher-end AV preamps like the Classe SSP-800 that I use in my reference system have very good internal DACs and power supplies, but then, at nearly $10,000, you have every right to expect that level of performance for the price.

Beyond DACs or paired with today's DACs are reclocking and jitter software that audiophiles are increasingly using with products like a Macbook Pro laptop as a source. My personal favorite is Amarra, which at about $400 is a bit pricey, but it loads your music into your computer's internal RAM and uses the computer's processor to "reclock" your computer audio files, be they some Napster-crappy MP3s or 24-bit music that you bought from HD Tracks. At CES 2012, all of the presenters were using laptops as sources, ranging from Wisdom Audio to Dan D'agostino to Wharfedale to Magico and many others. Other affordable computer audio upgrades that are getting some good press include Pure Music and Decibel.

Consumers are feeling abused by high- end products like expensive AV preamps that keep losing their value, thanks to the ridiculous upgrade pattern of HDMI surround sound formats and more. Today's DACs allow audiophiles to consolidate their systems, add computer audio and/or improve their processing as source components get cheaper and cheaper. Home theater enthusiasts can use DACs and/or Blu-ray players with happening DACs inside as affordable upgrades that can move the needle without pegging the needle on the credit card. Viva la DAC.

Additional Resources
• Read more original commentary like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• See related stories in our Source Component News section.
• Explore reviews of DACs in our Source Component Review section.

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