The last four to five years have been a fascinating time when it comes to what has taken place in the entry-level niche of USB DACs. Their sonic performance has vastly improved, to the point where a music lover on a budget can get great sound with very little strain on his or her pocketbook. Historically, Parasound has always offered wonderfully built, excellently designed high-performing gear at very reasonable prices. The company recently came out with a USB-equipped DAC called the Zdac, priced at $475.
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It took Parasound over two years of experimentation/modification to get the level of sonic performance that they were after in the company's new DAC. The Zdac also has a built-in high-quality headphone amp. Another interesting aspect of the Zdac is that Parasound hired the highly-regarded Danish digital company Holm Acoustics to design the chipset/circuit used in this DAC. Holm Acoustics has designed much more expensive DACS for other well known companies that have received very high praise for their sonic performance. Let's see if this joint project between Parasound and Holm Acoustics could bring this type of excellent sonic performance in at a much more affordable price in the Zdac.
The review piece sent to me was in an attractive silver finish. The overall appearance of the Zdac was quite handsome regarding the case work and visual details. The Zdac weighs five pounds, the width is 9.5 inches, the depth is 10 inches, and the height is two inches. The left side of the front panel is where the headphone input, power button and volume controls are located. In the middle is the screen that illuminates in clear green the input (OPT-COAX-USB) that is engaged. Finally, on the right side of the front panel is the input selector knob. The rear panel is where the two sets of outputs (RCA/XLR), the digital inputs (OPT-COAX-USB) and the AC inlet are located. Parasound is very clear in its assertion that the Zdac virtually eliminates jitter contamination through all inputs by the use of two premium parts: an Analog Devices AD1895 asynchronous sample converter and an AD1853 DAC IC. For increased resolution and sound quality, all incoming data is upsampled to 422 kHz.
My experience with solid-state USB DACs in the Zdac's price range has been that the company offers good clarity/details and dynamics, but lacks in two major areas. Many of the USB DACs sound rather dry and bleached out in their tonality and timbres. The other aspect that I find very noticeable is that they lack air around individual players and they tend to sound thin or lean when it comes to image density. These concerns completely vanished with my first music selection of guitarist Kenny Burrell's version of "Wavy Gravy" from his album Midnight Blue (Blue Note Records). The Zdac produced the warmth and tonal richness of both Burrell's guitar and Stanley Turrentine's tenor saxophone with a natural and lifelike ease.
One of the all-time great voices in the history of jazz is Billie Holiday. On her highly acclaimed album Body and Soul (Verve), the Zdac gave her rendition of "Darn that Dream" so much space and air around her in the soundstage that it created the illusion that she was standing between her band mates. Also, the little details and emotion in her voice were delivered with the right amount of texture and natural timbres.
My last musical selection was the tenor saxophonist Anat Cohen's version of "Cry Me a River" from her album Noir (Anzic Records) to see how the Zdac would handle big dynamics and the pop of a brass section at full gallop. The Zdac had no difficulties at producing the right amount of macro-dynamics with great bass tautness and extension on the bottom octaves. This cut also showed off how natural and airy the Zdac's top end was in its rendering of cymbals and other percussion instruments.
Read about the high points and low points of Parasound's Zdac on Page 2.
The Parasound Zdac's build quality and advanced design in its chipset and circuit are at a very high standard.
This USB DAC offers wonderful tonality and natural timbres that allow you to relax into the music.
The Parasound Zdac produces excellent image density and air around individual players, along with great dynamics and top and bottom extension.
The Parasound Zdac has an excellent-sounding built-in headphone amp with its own volume control, which allows you to listen to the wonderful DAC section through your headphones.
The Zdac performs at a much higher level with an after-market power cord than with the one provided with the unit. Therefore, this extra cost should be taken in consideration.
The overall sonic performance of the Zdac is at such a high level that it might expose shortcomings in the less-expensive entry-level systems that it would likely be matched with because of the reasonable price.
Comparison and Competition
The USB DACs in the $500 to $700 price bracket with which I have experience are the SimAudio Moon 100D DAC, valued at $650 and the Musical Fidelity M1DAC, valued at $799. Both these DACs offer excellent performance in the areas of details, dynamics, transparency and macro-dynamics. However, as I mentioned earlier in my review, these DACS are somewhat dry-sounding and lacking the image density of the Parasound Zdac. The Zdac really pulls ahead in the areas of tonal richness/timbres and 3D imaging, compared with the SimAudio and Musical Fidelity DACs. To learn more and see reviews of different DACs, please visit HomeTheaterReview.com's Digital-to-Analog Converter Review page.
With the Zdac, Parasound has a big winner on its hands that continues the company's history of great build quality, high sonic performance, innovative design, and one of the greatest "bang for the buck" found in audio gear. Based on its overachieving performance, especially in its tonal richness/timbres and 3D imaging, the Zdac competes with DACs that are really priced around $3,000 to $5,000.
In the context of this review, I would also like to share another amazing find regarding a digital cable. My reference cable for over five years was the amazing Stealth Audio Sextet that retails for $3,700. During the review process for the Zdac, I also auditioned the new Panatela digital cable, which retails for $475, from Sablon Cables. The designer/owner Mark Coles has produced the finest-sounding digital cable that I have ever reviewed for its remarkable price. The Panatela cable replaced the Stealth Sextet to become my new reference and was used to review the Zdac.
If you are in the market for a new USB DAC, I highly recommend you put the Parasound Zdac on your list before you go out and spend a bundle more that might not get you as close to the music as the Zdac. With the great amount of money you will save, go out, get a good aftermarket power cord and Sablon Cables Panatela digital cable to match with your new Zdac, and enjoy the music.
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