Digital to analog converters, or DACs. are becoming increasingly important in our growing digital music world. I can think of no other category, save maybe soundbars, that has seen such a surge in recent memory. Seemingly everyone is jumping on the DAC bandwagon and, while that may bode well for variety, that doesn't necessarily mean it bodes well for quality. Thankfully, there's Wyred 4 Sound, an Internet-direct company that makes, you guessed it, several different DACs. However, unlike many of their counterparts, Wyred 4 Sound's DAC offerings have managed to ruffle a few feathers and have gotten under the noses of some high-priced competition, which is why I had to have a listen and hear for myself.
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The DAC-2 is Wyred 4 Sound's flagship effort, though it sells direct for a very un-reference price of $1,499. Available in your choice of black or silver, the DAC-2 is a handsomely unassuming piece that looks far better in person than it does in photographs. It's also larger in person than it seems in photographs, measuring eight-and-a-half inches wide by a little over four inches tall and 13.5 inches deep. It isn't light, either, tipping the scales at 16 pounds, which for a DAC might as well be 100. Still, its construction is solid, its connection options, which I'll get to in a second, are of a high quality and its feature set is more akin to what you'd expect from a preamp than your run of the mill DAC. There's a reason for this, of course: it's because the DAC-2 is also a preamp.
As for input/output options, the DAC-2 has two coaxial digital inputs, two optical audio inputs, one AES/EBU input, one 1S2 input (via non-standard HDMI cable) and a 24-bit, 192kHz Asynchronous USB input. A word on the DAC-2's digital and USB inputs: the coaxial digital inputs are capable of accepting signals up to 32 bits in length and 200 kHz in frequency, whereas the optical inputs can only handle up to 176.4 kHz due to the limitations of the format's transmission properties. The DAC-2's USB input can handle 24-bit, 192 kHz signals. Outputs include a pair of unbalanced and balanced (true balanced design) audio outs. There's even a home theater bypass via a pair of unbalanced inputs. A detachable power cord and a 12-volt trigger round out the DAC-2's connection options.
Under the hood, the DAC-2 employs an ESS Reference Audio (ES9018) 32-bit DAC chip. The ESS chip is an eight-channel design, utilizing four differential D-A conversion circuits per channel, making it a quad-differential design. This allows the DAC-2 a lower signal to noise ratio, as well as increased output drive capability. Wyred 4 Sound uses proprietary output stages for improved sonic capability, along with an ESS Time Domain Jitter Eliminator. The DAC-2 automatically oversamples all incoming signals and its digital, output and USB boards are all upgradeable in the future should technology improve or change. The DAC-2 has an oversized torrodial transformer, over 115,000uF of capacitance, as well as 88,000uF of filtering via the Wyred 4 Sound low ESR "super-cap." The analog output stages are separate from the digital ones to ensure sonic purity and optimal performance.
All of the DAC-2's various functions and features can be controlled via its hard controls or via the remote. The included remote has controls for power, balance, home theater pass-through, volume, display brightness, input selection, phase and mute. While unassuming and non-backlit, the DAC-2 remote is nothing if not functional and a welcome addition for a DAC of this magnitude.
Installing the DAC-2 into one's system is easy enough if you plan on using it for a single source or function, for instance, connecting it between your CD player and preamp either via an optical or coaxial digital connection. However, for the purposes of this review, I chose to install the DAC-2 in a myriad of different ways, beginning with connecting it to my AppleTV via an optical cable connected to the DAC-2's optical 1 input. From there, I connected my Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD universal Blu-ray player to the DAC-2 via both optical and coaxial inputs, optical 2 and coaxial 1, to be exact. Now, the Azur 751BD has its own internal DACs (which are bypassed when using the player as a transport), but I wanted to see if there was a sonic improvement by having the DAC-2 in the chain, as opposed to out. For comparison's sake, I connected my Azur 751BD directly to my Integra DHC 80.2 preamp via its analog audio outputs with the Integra set to direct, so as not to affect the sound in any way, or at least affect it as little as possible. As many of you may or may not know already, the 751BD uses the same DAC setup as Cambridge Audio's DacMagic, which has served as my affordable reference for well over a year, so it too was on hand for comparison's sake, though it should also be noted that the DACMagic is a third of the price of the DAC-2. Lastly, I connected my wife's MacBook laptop to the DAC-2 via its USB input and the included Wyred 4 Sound cable.
For the majority of my review period with the DAC-2, I used it as a DAC only, meaning I ran it unbalanced to my Integra's CD input with the DAC-2's volume set to "fixed." When I did use the DAC-2 as a preamp, I connected it via its unbalanced outputs to my Pass Labs X250.5 amplifier, which was powering my reference Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers. To ensure a level playing field, all inputs, whether they were on the DAC-2 or my Integra AV preamp, were level-matched using a Radio Shack digital SPL meter. All digital cables were generic in brand and the same across the board. The analog interconnects were from Crystal Cable, as were the speaker cables. The only cable I had on hand that I couldn't duplicate was the USB cable, for I only had one that was compatible and it came from Wyred 4 Sound.
I let the DAC-2 settle in for the better part of a week before doing any critical listening.
I tackled my evaluation of the DAC-2 with Barenaked Ladies' album Gordon and the track "The King of Bedside Manor," which is an up-tempo, raucous song that, despite its early '90s pop roots, is surprisingly well-recorded. Setting a benchmark via my Cambridge Audio 751BD player, the track was lifelike in its scale, with a soundstage that was as deep as it was wide, with tremendous detail and focus throughout. Lead vocals from front men Steven Page and Ed Robertson were grounded firmly on either side of center and played off one another brilliantly, with the remaining musicians and instruments existing several feet behind them. Tonally, the 751BD was a touch warm, or shall I say rich, thanks to a slight fullness in the lower mid-bass and a smoothing of the high frequencies. Overall, the presentation was still energetic and engrossing and among one of the best demos of the track I'd heard in a long while.
Read more about the performance of the DAC-2 on Page 2.