Audio Research DAC2 Digital to Analog Converter Reviewed

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Audio-Research-dac2-review.gifDeath, taxes and the Audio Research Corporation -- the three things I can count on no matter what. Ever since I first coveted an SP-3, reviewed a D-70, acquired an SP-9, then an SP-14 and a DAC1, I've found the presence of at least one of the Minnetonka Marvels to be something reassuring and constant. Which is amusing when you consider that ARC was once so guilty of upgrade-itis that the list of model suffixes read like alphabet soup. Then again, that was when high-end audio was such an active, controversial hobby that you could do all sorts of silly things, like pander to unstable gurus. Now that the high-end has matured and toughened in the face of economic realities, ARC has emerged as one of its more dependable elements. You can almost imagine the staff attending anti-political rallies, actively fighting the perilous path of fashion which gives a rating in hi-fi's Top 10 about as much shelf-life as a doner kebab.

Which means that ARC hardware can be thought of as an investment, and you don't really have to rush down to your local hi-fi emporium if and when the company does announce an upgrade. My SP-14 is a very early one, changed after three-and-a-half years only by the substitution of a new valve for the original. And yet I have no desire to part with the '14 or trade it in for a newer one. The point I'm making is that ARC, once upon a time exhibiting as much of the high-end's self-destructive tendencies as any other brand, has become one of only four or five makes which have risen above high-end lunacy. Which leads us to a complete ARC system which illustrates this (almost) conservative approach to perfection.

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Remember that ARC has a long history as the most valve-supporting of all the serious manufacturers. And yet it employs transistors when necessary. Talk to Terry Dorn or Bill Johnson and you won't detect a trace of religious fervour when you mention tubes. The attitude is simply 'Use a tube if it's the best solution to the problem.' So the middle-of-the-catalogue package under scrutiny is two-thirds solid-state -- but you wouldn't know that if you weren't told so. The sound is pure valve.

Externally, this is all classic ARC: silver with black handles, recessed knobs, delicate toggle switches, green tell-tale LEDs, laboratory-chic right down to the...whoa, there. Something has changed. Gone are the pre-drilled slots for 19in rack-mounting. Not to worry; I'm probably the only jerk in the hi-fi community who ever used them, even without owning one of the company's gorgeous, bespoke rack units.

For �3840, you get no nonsense; the DAC2 is about as simple as they come. Its front panel contains only an on-off switch and indicator, polarity inversion, a 'lock' indicator and a selector for one of the three sources and therefore identical to the now-discontinued the DAC1-20. At the back, things have progressed to accommodate both the latest transports and balanced operation. The three inputs include AT&T and TOSlink optical for inputs 1 and 2, while input 3 is switchable for either BNC or AES/EBU non-optical data transmission. Digital output is via TOSlink. The line-level output is accomplished with either RCA unbalanced or XLR balanced. (I was not able to use the latter because the LS3B has only unbalanced inputs.)

Firmly a multi-bit device, the DAC2 features an UltraAnalog 20-bit DAC with x8 oversampling as used in the DAC1-20. It differs from its predecessor with an all-new digital receiver for better jitter control and an all-new analogue section using the company's latest approaches to power supply regulation; this is what makes an uprated DAC1-20 a Mark II and not a DAC2.

Austerity does not apply to the affordable LS3B, which -- from ten paces -- is hard to distinguish from other ARC line-level-only pre-amps. Across the top, four rotaries for gain, balance, mono/stereo and a selector to choose from five main inputs. Below the knobs is the recess containing on-off, mute/operate, a green tell-tale, direct/normal input and source/tape monitor. The direct switch accesses a wholly separate, sixth input which bypasses much of the control circuitry for purist listening. Around the back, it's all-gold phono socketry, but with two sets of main outputs as well as the XLR 'balanced' output which makes this an LS3B selling for �2149 instead of an unbalanced LS3 for �1593.

The LS3/3B replaces the popular LS1as ARC's entry level line-amp. It's a solid-state design in which simplicity has been made a prime concern. The result? Ultra-short signal paths and a minimum of wiring. DC-coupled inputs and a tightly regulated power supply are also part of the recipe as is the company's patented Decoupled Electrolytic Capacitor circuitry first featured in the dearer models. Yet that 'B' suffix doesn't mean true balanced operation but balanced-style output socketry. The LS3, unlike the truly balanced LS2, is a single-ended design; ARC added a phase splitter, whacked on the XLRs and thus made the LS3 suitable for use with XLR-input-only power amps, such as the new V-Series units. But it's not just an expensive socket change, for the LS3B does enjoy an extra 6dB gain in output and it is quieter -- if not so quiet as a fully-balanced design. (I did my RCA vs XLR listening through the Classe DR-10 just to make certain that the extra dosh paid for more than sexy hardware.)

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