Not a week goes by that I don’t hear an audiophile complain about the “audio dealer situation” in his or her area. The story is always the same: There’s nowhere to hear a particular model, or the ones that compete against it. More and more, audiophiles face an hours-long road trip -- or, more likely, two or three such trips -- or even air travel, for what amounts to a three-day investment of time. Who has time and money for all that? This is a hobby.
What I see more and more of are e-mails asking what I would buy if I were in the e-mailer’s shoes. I happily give my advice, often with the disclaimer “Go hear it for yourself” -- even though I know full well that if they could go hear it for themselves, they probably wouldn’t be contacting me!
Therefore, this series of Ultra Audio articles will focus on what I would buy, if it were my money, at various price points in all the product genres I have experience with. My lists won’t be exhaustive, and I’ll surely omit some really good products. Take these lists as starting points -- but if you have no other options, I feel confident that you won’t find a single weak item in these lists. I’ve heard many of these products, and those I haven’t have been evaluated by SoundStage! Network ears I trust. So yeah, I guess I’m telling you that I think it’s safe to just go ahead and order the things. They’re as close to can’t-go-wrong purchases as I can come up with.
I’m starting with my preferred audio source component: a computer. I discarded the disc and adopted the computer as my sole source component a number of years ago and have not looked back. It’s convenient, cost effective, and, when set up right, can deliver sound in stunning fidelity. Here are my recommendations.
Music Servers: I still like laptops for this, even though the Aurender models (S10, $6995; W10, $15,000) are the top-dog servers. I recently bought the latest Apple MacBook Air ($999-$1399, depending on screen size, processor speed, memory, etc.) for work at audio shows, and for everyday use for my work as editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network. The Air strikes me as a perfect solution for double use as your travel and/or home computer, and your music server. Its solid-state hard drive is dead silent, which makes a big difference in a quiet listening room. Its Intel Core i5 or i7 processors are fast, and Mountain Lion, the Apple’s latest operating system, performs flawlessly, in my experience. For less money, and if you don’t plan to use the machine as your everyday computer, you can get a Mac Mini for as little as $599. If you go this route, you can get even more memory (16GB) and an additional USB port. Many folks have done this, and taken advantage of a number of aftermarket tweaks and modifications designed to help the Mac Mini perform even better as a music server.
Music Player Software: I’ve been using the latest version of Amarra ($189), and it sounds and works great. It’s so nice to be able to just use iTunes directly with Amarra working in the background -- my, how the last few years have seen massive improvements on this front. The latest version supports 384kHz playback, should you ever need it, and will play FLAC files. Alternatives to Amarra include Audirvana Plus ($74), which gives you an intuitive user interface and the ability to play DSD files. At the time of writing, I’ve been told that tomorrow, February 22, JRiver will launch Media Center for Macs ($49.98)! If you’re reading this during the first couple weeks of March, some initial user reviews of the software have probably already been posted. I don’t know how MC for Macs will compare with Amarra and Audirvana Plus, both of which I’ve used, but it might be worth checking out.
DACs: You’ll need to hook up your computer to a digital-to-analog converter with a USB cable (I’ll cover cables in a separate article). DACs come in all shapes and sizes at all price points, and with varying functionality, such as volume controls and headphone jacks. You’ll have to make sure that whatever model you choose will handle your current and future needs (for instance, you might need multiple digital inputs for, say, a Blu-ray player or a set-top cable or satellite box). On the other hand, a single-input machine might be perfect for a desktop system dedicated to audio.
I’ll start with the ultimate no-brainer DAC. The AudioQuest DragonFly, at $249, is perhaps the strongest just-buy-it recommendation on this list. A 24-bit/96kHz asynchronous DAC with a sample-rate indicator light built into the DragonFly logo . . . are you kidding me? This thing is just plain cool. (I hear that Kate Upton thinks so, too.) A DAC that fellow SoundStage! Network reviewer Sathyan Sundaram just wrote about on GoodSound! is the Resonessence Labs Concero ($599). This little guy is carved out of a solid block of aluminum and contains a Sabre DAC -- these days, the hottest DAC chip on the market. With multiple filters to choose from for tailoring the sound to your liking, the Concero looks like a mighty fine product. The Benchmark DAC2 HGC ($1995) has been gaining traction in the high-end community since its launch, and that includes the SoundStage! Network writers who’ve heard it. Its built-in volume control and pair of analog inputs obviates the need for a preamp in most systems. The headphone jacks make the DAC2 HGC as full-featured a product as you’ll find in this smallish form factor.
The Hegel HD25 ($2500) is a giant killer. You can read my full review right here on Ultra Audio on March 15, but for now, suffice it to say that I really liked this DAC. It sounds glorious -- the main “feature” that Hegel seems to be getting great press for these days. In a full-size DAC that aspires to the state of the art but isn’t stupidly priced, I like the Arcam FMJ D33 ($3299). Hans Wetzel reviewed this model late last year on SoundStage! Hi-Fi and still talks about it. With all the digital inputs you’ll ever need as well as balanced analog XLR outputs, the D33 could be part of a super-high-end system costing many, many multiples of its price. For something just over twice the Arcam’s price, look to the Calyx Femto, which I’m currently using in my system. For $6850 you get a jewel-like aluminum case and a femtosecond clocking circuit that promises vanishingly low levels of jitter. The Femto invites the question: Why spend more?
Well, would I spend more on a DAC? Probably not. I think such a huge percentage of the state of the art of digital technology is available in the products I’ve listed above that I’d put any additional money I had into better speakers and amplifiers. But as long as you’re twisting my arm . . .
Read Howard Kneller’s review of the EMM Labs DAC2X and tell me you don’t want to at least hear it. This monster of a DAC costs $15,500 -- a whole lot of money for a technology class that seems to greatly improve every three years or so. But in the absolute best systems, this is what I’d hear first, and might -- just might -- buy, assuming my kids’ college tuitions were already paid for . . . and the house paid off . . .
Ultimately, I don’t believe you need to spend over $10,000 on a DAC. And for considerably less, you can have magical sound from your computer-based files and never want for more. There are many, many other products out there that I’m sure are fantastic but that I haven’t included here. Many of them I haven’t heard, while others have yet to find their way through the hands of SoundStage! Network reviewers. But the products I have included? Count on them to deliver the goods.
Go forth and go digital -- just don’t go broke.
. . . Jeff Fritz