Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD Vacuum Tube DAC Reviewed

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Concert-Fidelity-dac040.jpgIn my reference system, the one piece of equipment that has remained consistent for over six years has been the Concert Fidelity DAC-040 digital-to-analog converter. What made it so different and special in its sonic performance over the numerous DACs that I would audition during this time period boiled down to three sonic characteristics that were unique in the digital reproduction of music. First was how the Concert Fidelity DAC-040 was able to produce vivid harmonic colors. Second, its rendition of individual instrument timbres was superb. Lastly, it offered the type of three-dimensional imaging/palpability that normally one could only experience with the finest analog front ends. It would be an ostentatious assumption on my part to state that I have heard every highly regarded digital-to-analog converter on the market to come to this conclusion. However, I made a conscientious effort to spend time listening to numerous highly regarded DACs in my own system or with other systems with which I was very familiar in order to validate the special qualities of the Concert Fidelity DAC-040. This list would include DACs from such notable companies as Playback Designs, DCS, Wadia, Esoteric, Zodaic, MSB, AMR, Weiss, MBL, PS Audio, Audio Note, Ayon, Accuphase, and Berkley Designs.

When I was informed that Concert Fidelity had come out with a new version of the DAC-040, called the DAC-040BD (Battery Powered), that retails for $12,000, I was quite intrigued to see what possible sonic improvements could exist. I contacted Mike Kay of Audio Archon, who is the Midwest retailer for the Japan-based Concert Fidelity, to set up this review. The CEO and chief designer of Concert Fidelity, Mr. Masa Tsuda, is considered to be a world-renowned designer of both tube-based and solid-state preamplifiers, amplifiers, and digital-to-analog converters. Mr. Tsuda is a very strong advocate for only using very short and clean circuits with the least amount of parts possible in his designs. The analog section of the DAC-040BD is very similar to the circuit that he uses in the highly regarded reference LS-080 preamplifier. The DAC-040BD uses 12AU7 tubes in the analog circuit and a 6CA4/EZ81 rectifier tube in the power supply section. It took over two years of listening tests for Mr. Tsuda to find the NOS DAC chips, which turned out to be the Philips Multi-Bit 16-bit DAC chipset, that would deliver the type of sound he was ultimately searching for in the performance of the 040BD.

In the original DAC-040 and in the DAC-040BD, there's no over-/upsampling or any type of digital filters anywhere in the design; therefore, the Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD is a 16-bit/44-kHz DAC. The new and qualitative difference found in the DAC-040BD is that the DAC section (chipset) is always kept warm, even when the analog tube-based conversion section is in standby, and the DAC section is powered by an internal battery pack at all times. You get approximately eight to 10 hours of playing time from the internal battery pack in between charges. When there is about an hour left of battery power, a yellow LED on the front of the DAC lights up. Additionally, a red LED lights up when the DAC is completely powered by an AC wall current. The DAC-040BD stills plays during recharging, which takes about 20 minutes to complete, then it reverts back to pure battery power for the DAC section. The battery pack lasts about one to two years and costs $100 to replace.

Concert-Fidelity-dac04rear.jpgThe DAC's dimensions are 3.9 inches high by 17 inches wide by 12.5 inches deep, with a weight of 16 pounds. All Concert Fidelity equipment, including the DAC-040BD, is encased in a beautiful, hand-built silver-gray aluminum chassis. The back panel houses one pair of single-ended analog output terminals along with one RCA digital input, the IEC input, the main power switch, a toggle switch for grounding, and the input for the pair of 12AU7 tubes. Because the tube sockets are located externally on the back, it is very easy to do tube rolling to tailor the sound to your personal taste without the hassle of having to take off the top of the DAC to get to the tubes, which is the case with most tube-based DACs. Finally, there is a power switch located on the left side of the DAC-040BD that takes it out of standby to full operating status.

During my listening session with Boz Scagg's "Speak Low" (DECCA), it quickly became apparent that all the superlative strengths of the original DAC-040--the rich and vivid harmonic colors, the individual instrumental timbres, and the silky analog-like presentation--were taken to an even higher qualitative level. I would have never thought that the DAC-040 had any type of low-level background noise to get in the way of its clarity and transparency, but it was very easy to hear that the new DAC-040BD had a much lower noise floor and had an even higher level of transparency that allowed the most subtle micro-details to emerge. Another area that was very noticeable was the extension, air, and delicacy of higher-end frequencies, including cymbals and stringed instruments.

When I moved to the great songwriter and singer Lucinda Williams' new double album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Thirty Tigers), another striking improvement became very apparent. What I call "image density" or how three-dimensional the individual players are rendered, creating the illusion of a live performance in your room, increased dramatically and significantly with the DAC-040BD.

With British singer Adele's very popular and highly acclaimed first album 19 (NL Recordings/Columbia), the Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD allowed me to much more easily hear the different nuances in her voice, compared with the DAC-040. The space between Adele and her band members was precisely reproduced, and you could clearly tell when the producer would rearrange their positions on different musical selections.

The final selection I chose, which has an analog-type signature, was by the great multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan. On his album Blue Skies (Delmark), he plays both tenor sax and trumpet backed by his swinging trio. This CD showcased the overall organic and natural perspective that the DAC-040BD creates when playing music. Again, all the gorgeous color and timbres of his tenor sax and the warm/rich tone of his trumpet playing were on display. The location of each individual player within the soundstage and the ambience of the recording studio were clearly conveyed into to my listening room by the Concert Fidelity DAC. The sense of space between the players was the most accurate/natural I have ever experienced in my reference system.

High Points
• The Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD offers superb reproduction of harmonic colors and instrumental timbres, and it has striking three-dimensional imaging and an overall analog-like presentation.
• Because it's battery powered, the extremely low noise floor of the DAC-040BD will allow you to hear what different tubes (such as 12AU7s, 5814s, or 5963s) offer in altering the overall signature of the DAC, giving you the freedom to customize its performance to your personal taste or to create synergy in your system.
• It is hand-built, using the finest internal components and having a very handsome appearance.
• Additionally, it produces a spacious/accurate soundstage with precise layering and location of the musicians.

Low Points
• The digital input on the Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD can receive high-resolution PCM up to 24/96, but it downconverts the signal to 16/44 and will not play DSD. However, with a USB-to-SPDIF converter or with high-resolution computer playback via coax/SPDIF, the DAC-040BD will play other high-resolution formats beautifully, just adjusting the higher sampling rate to its 16/44 format.
• Like all tube-based equipment, the DAC-040BD will ultimately need to have its tubes replaced in the future. However, all the tubes used in this DAC are rather inexpensive and will last years before they need to be replaced.

Comparison and Competition
Within its price range, the two digital-to-analog converters that would be natural competitors to the Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD would be the DCS Dedussy that retails for $11,499 and the Esoteric K-03X that retails for $12,000. I find both of those pieces to have great transparency, extreme clarity/micro-details, excellent extension on the top and bottom frequencies, and good soundstaging capabilities. However, when either of these pieces is compared to the Concert Fidelity in the areas of tonality/timbres, image density/palpability, and the air/space around individual players, they are not at the same level as the DAC-040BD. I experienced both the DCS and Esoteric as being analytical and somewhat bleached in their reproduction of tonality/timbres and rather two-dimensional in how they created space between individual players compared with the DAC-040BD.

Conclusion
I was quite content having the Concert Fidelity DAC-040 as my reference for many years. It produced music with natural and gorgeous tonality/timbres, created a large and accurate soundstage with excellent layering and placement of individual players, and was the least "digital sounding" digital-to-analog converter I had ever heard. After listening to many highly regarded DACs, I found that, while I admired a few of the individual DACs for some of their sonic abilities, they all sounded like very good digital reproductions. They did not produce the illusion of real music that would relax and draw me into the music the way the Concert Fidelity did. Surprisingly, the new DAC-040BD offers significant improvement over the previous generation. I trusted that Mr. Tusda would never come out with a new generation of his DAC unless he thought he could improve its performance. However, to take all the beauty of the DAC-040 to a much higher level and add even more image density/three-dimensionality was something I didn't expect could be done in the digital reproduction of music. The DAC-040BD has taken a significant step toward creating the illusion of real music, something that advocates for analog reproduction have always claimed to be missing in digital reproduction. It should come as no surprise that, at the end of the auditioning process, I purchased the demo unit.

Additional Resources
• Visit Concert Fidelity's website for additional product information.
• Check out our Digital-to-Analog Converters category page for similar reviews.


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HTR Product Rating for Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD Vacuum Tube DAC

Criteria Rating

Performance

5

Value

2.5

Overall

4

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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