Digital-to-analog converters (DACs) are all the rage nowadays, as digital audio file playback continues to increase in popularity. There are many varieties of DAC: the DAC/preamp, CD/DAC, USB DAC and beyond. The central functionality is the same: to take a digital signal from a source (a digital file stored on a physical medium like a CD, SACD, or DVD-Audio disc or in a computer, media server, or NAS drive) and convert it to an analog signal that an amplifier can accept and work its magic to drive beautiful music through your speakers. As a traditional AV enthusiast, I already have a very competent DAC that's built into my Oppo BDP-105 (using the critically acclaimed ESS Sabre ES-9018 platform), which I use to play all shiny, spinning discs and which also has a USB input for playing any number of digital files. Other enthusiasts probably have something similar built into their AV preamp or receiver if their music system doubles as their home theater. But the concept of home theater and music enjoyment is constantly evolving, and that's what we love about this hobby.
The USB DAC caters to the group of audio lovers who primarily listen to digital files stored on the computer. Oftentimes, a computer's internal DAC (depending how nice of a sound card you have) can be a little deficient on sound quality or may lack proper analog outputs to work with most amplifiers. Retailing for $499, Denon's new DA-300USB DAC weighs a mere 3.3 pounds and features a 32-bit DAC that can handle sample rates up to 192 kHz. To support the many different sample rates possible, Denon has built in two separate master clock crystals, one for 44.1 kHz and one for 48 kHz to provide maximum accuracy with just about any common sampling frequency out there today. It can also decode DSD signals, including both DSD-64 and DSD-128 (commonly referred to as double DSD). Inputs include one asynchronous USB, one coaxial digital, and two optical digital. Output options include a stereo analog RCA in the back and a headphone out in the front that fits a quarter-inch connector. The front panel is fairly minimalist in design. In addition to the headphone output, there's a power button, a volume knob, and an OLED display that shows the volume level and current source, with its file type and sampling frequency.
Included in the box is a custom bottom plate that, when attached, allows the Denon DAC to stand vertically - similar to the way many people like to position an external hard drive on the desktop - which is a thoughtful, space-saving design. Since I tested the unit with my main stereo rig in the living room instead of a desktop system, I decided to skip the bottom plate and just lay the Denon flat horizontally.
I primarily played music files from my HP Envy laptop using both the built-in HP Connected Music player, as well as the Foobar2000 media player (for testing DSD files). I connected my laptop to the Denon via a standard Belkin USB cable. While many users will not need an additional preamp when using the Denon, I wanted to keep everything else in my reference system as similar as possible, so I fed the analog signal (using Monoprice RCA cables) from the Denon's output into my Parasound JC-2BP preamp with Crown XLS-2500 amplifiers driving my Salk Soundscape 12 speakers. Basically, the Denon took the place of the Oppo BDP-105 that I normally use as a DAC for digital music files.
Click over to Page Two to find out about the Performance, the Downside, Comparison & Competition, and the Conclusion . . .