DACs Awards – Q1 2013 (Part 1)

3/14/2013 9:10:44 AM

Enhance your computer or CD player’s sound and make the most of your high-resolution files with a digital to analogue converter

Product of the year

Best DAC up to $450

Audioquest DragonFly: $322.5

On the cover of our October issue, we hailed the DragonFly as ‘Hi-Fi’s newest superstar.’ And our opinion hasn’t changed; Audioquest’s tiny DAC/headphone amp has been the talk of the office ever since it arrived.

Audioquest DragonFly, the best DAC up to $450

Audioquest DragonFly, the best DAC up to $450

It might be no larger than a USB stick, but it can turn any computer (Mac or PC) into a fully functioning hi-fi system by bypassing your computer’s internal DAC and using the high-grade converter in its petite frame instead. You don’t need any external volume control either, as it piggybacks the volume control of your music player’s software. This allows both DAC and headphone amp to be squeezed into such a small space. In the portability stakes, the DragonFly takes some beating.

File support is extensive: the unit can play 24-bit/192kHz files natively although it has to down sample high-res 24-bit/192kHz to 24/96 during playback. The USB socket also supports asynchronous data transfer. This means the digital clock in the DragonFly tells your PC when to send data to the DAC, so the timing of the digital signal is more accurate and jitter levels (digital timing errors) are lower. This theoretically means better sound quality. In a nice touch, the logo changes color to indicate the sampling rate is being used.

Miles better than your computer

The difference between the DragonFly and the headphones socket on an Apple MacBook Pro, say, is day and night. Play Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful piano piece I Gorni and each note sounds clear and distinct. The DAC captures the tracks graciousness and emotion perfectly. Switch to some rock or R ’n’ B and the DragonFly displays weight, agility and an impressive sense of rhythm. Marry this to an even tonal balance and insightful levels of detail and there’s very little reason not to go for it.

We’ve heard many excellent-sounding DACs, the best of which are here for your perusal. But it’s the simplicity and elegance of the DragonFly combined with its fantastic sound that sees it stand out from the crowd.

Best DAC $450-$750

Musical Fidelity M1 DAC: $600

Thanks to products such as the DragonFly, DACs are starting to become more mainstream products in their own right. But back in the 1980s, when all this was fields and DACs were big new first time round, Musical Fidelity was one of the early evangelists.

Musical Fidelity M1 DAC

Musical Fidelity M1 DAC

Granted, these products were primarily used to improve the performance of CD players, but the experience has positioned the company well to exploit the boom in computer audio.

And the M1DAC is currently one of the best pound for pound DACs currently available. Yes it’s mainly down to how the MF performs, but having an extensive, modern list of specifications does the device no harm at all.

Even the most testing classical recordings are handled with the utmost skill and confidence this is a truly unflappable DAC

Inputs aplenty

As well as optical, coaxial and asynchronous type-B USB inputs, the Musical Fidelity includes a (rarely seen at this money) balanced XLR digital input. This, along with the coaxial input, will handle 24-bit/192kHz material. On the output side, the only things missing are a headphone socket and volume control but you’ll doubtless have those on your amplifier anyway.

Even the most testing classical recordings, such as Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Variations from the Buffalo Philharmonic are handled with the utmost skill and confidence. It’s a wide-open listen, spacious and well-focused, even when faced with a full-strength orchestra. Dynamic shifts ranging from ‘barely there’ to ‘maximum attack’ are dispatched without stress.

This is an agile, unflappable DAC that’s just as happy to stride through a deep, complicated bass-line as it is to deliver every last nuance in a solo voice thanks to its tonally vivid smoothly integrated performance. And that’s a rare combination. High frequencies can sound a little abrasive in a carelessly matched system but in every other respect, the M1 DAC is as good a DAC at the price as we’ve ever heard.

Best DAC $750-$1350

Audiolab M-DAC: $900

You can’t keep a good DAC down. Or in the Audiolab’s case a very good DAC. It might have lost its 2011 Product of the Year crown to the DragonFly, but the M-DAC is still sensational value and can more than hold its own against units costing twice as much

Audiolab M-DAC

Audiolab M-DAC

It looks smart, and connectivity is thorough. Alongside the USB input you’ll find two digital optical and two digital coaxial inputs, while on the output side you can choose from optical, coaxial, RCA and balanced XLR audio. It even acts as a headphone amp, with a socket and volume control on the front.

The wand-like remote is a neat design and lets you switch inputs; select from preset sonic filters and alter the display. The large, clear screen displays the input you’re using and the sample rate being received. No file is too tough for the M-DAC, either, as it handles everything up to high-res 24-bit/192kHz, but is limited to 24/96 over optical and USB.

But box-ticking alone doesn’t win Awards. The real beauty of the M-DAC is just how good it makes your music sound. It does so effortlessly too, producing bags of detail, stirring dynamics, and an exciting agility to the delivery.

The M-DAC will have you coming back time and again just to see how well it handles all your favorite tracks

Nimble and precise

A WAV file of Hans Zimmer’s Time from the Inception soundtrack requires plenty of information to be processed, but the Audiolab doesn’t flinch and the sound remains precise and controlled throughout. It’ll have you coming back time and again just to see how well it handles all your favorite tracks. Bass is weighty, but at the same time the DAC proves light and fast on its feet.

Audiolab has delivered a knockout blow to many rivals this side of $1500. In terms of pure value for money, the M-DAC is off the scale.

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