Bryston BDA-3.14 DAC/Preamp/Streamer

Digital Versatility

Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Bryston BDA-3.14 DAC/Preamp/Streamer

For the vast majority of modern audiophiles streaming is an integral part of their audio system. Given its ubiquitous nature, it’s hard to find any forward-thinking audio manufacturer who does not offer at least one streaming source component. Bryston has been making streamers since 2010, and the BDA-3.14 reviewed here is the company’s sixth entry into the category, and one of three models currently in production.  The BDA-3.14 mates the technology inside Bryston’s model BDA-3 DAC with an internal streaming device. The result is a one-box DAC/digital preamplifier and source selector/streamer priced at only $400 more than the company’s BDA-3 DAC. Unless you’re into some serious DIY streamer-building, you’re not going to find a high-quality streaming solution for less, which makes the $4195 Bryston BDA-3.14 look like a stone-cold bargain and certainly worth examination, which follows, post haste.

Technical Tour
The goal of the BDA-3.14 was simple in theory, if more challenging in practice—add a streaming function to the BDA-3 platform that was of the same high sound quality as the BDA-3. Since it’s over three years newer, Bryston did have the time to incorporate some additional design features and ergonomic alternatives into the BDA-3.14.

The DAC section for the BDA-3.14 is built around a pair of AK4490 DAC chips, just like that of the BDA-3. While the BDA-3 is a fixed-level output device without any volume control, the BDA-3.14’s volume control utilizes the volume-adjustment feature built into the AK4490 DAC chip, since it is a 32-bit platform. And while throwing away bits on a 24-bit DAC can result in audible sonic degradation at lower volume levels, with a 32-bit DAC the bit loss is not substantial enough to cause audible sonic degradation even at modest volume levels. So that was what Bryston opted to use for the BDA-3.14 volume control. 

The output section of the BDA-3.14 features a fully discrete, Class A, balanced XLR output, in addition to a pair of single-ended RCA stereo outputs. Inputs include four HDMI connections (with one HDMI output for video pass-through), AES/EBU, TosLink, and coaxial and BNC SPDIF, USB 1, and USB 2, four USB accessory inputs for external storage, and two Ethernet connections. The regular Ethernet is for daily use, including firmware updates to the streamer side of the product. The second service Ethernet port allows for network control over non-streaming functions of the product and embedded hardware firmware updates. (Most customers will never use SVC Ethernet.) Finally, the BDA-3.14 has 12-volt and USB control ports. While it lacks internal Wi-Fi or Bluetooth input options, you can easily add a USB Wi-Fi dongle available from Bryston and/or a Bluetooth receiver to one of the digital audio inputs. That’s a lot of potential connectivity that should support even a highly sophisticated two-channel digital audio and AV system. The only features the BDA-3.14 lacks are analog inputs. If you wish to use an analog source, you’ll need a separate preamplifier with analog inputs and source switching. 

So, why so many HDMI inputs? The idea is that you can route the digital feed from almost any Blu-ray Disc player through the BDA-3.14, and achieve better audio quality than you could obtain from the player’s analog outputs by using the BDA-3.14’s digital decoding instead of the player’s decoding circuitry. SACD’s DSD digital signal can be sent via native DSD, not DOP, by most players to the BDA-3.14, where it can be converted back to analog. This built-in feature is similar in outcome, if not internal methodology, to the GeerFab’s D.Bob HDMI/SACD converter box I review in this issue. The BDA-3.14’s HDMI output allows the HDMI signal from any of the HDMI inputs to be routed to your display.

Bryston’s approach to Ethernet and Internet music acquisition is refreshingly pragmatic. Instead of building a server from scratch, it began with a Raspberry Pi 3 mini-computer as its Internet gateway device. Why a Pi? Because it works reliably and has excellent and continuing support from Pi. As a guy who has had a Raspberry P 3 with an Allo hat (an accessory board that converts I2S to SPDIF) and a linear power supply up and running for several months, I know how good a basic Pi streaming solution can sound (supports DSD256 via DOP, PCM 192, and is Roon-compliant), but Bryston goes one better by taking the I2S feed directly from the Pi board and routing it to its sample-rate converter (SRC) board, which reclocks the signal. Upsampling by the SRC is only available on SPDIF and AES/EBU inputs. This additional circuitry between the Pi and the BDA-3.14’s DAC section improves the overall performance of all Ethernet sources coming through the Pi. (Anyone who’s curious as to why Bryston chose to use 3.14 as the model number…it happens to equal Pi.) Besides Ethernet music sources the BDA-3.14’s SRC also handles signals from its SPDIF inputs, so they, too, can benefit from the unit’s re-clocking and upsampling capabilities.

The BDA-3.14 does not support MQA. That is the only limit in the BDA-3.14’s overall capabilities. But Roon users can have the Roon Core perform the MQA unfold, which will send 88.2kHz or 96kHz to the Bryston with MQA-encoded files. I also accomplished this with the Audirvana player app for Mac OS. A 192/24 Tidal MQA-encoded file will play back via the BDA-3.14 at 96/24 with either of these player applications doing the first decode. If you don’t have software that performs MQA unfolding, the best you’ll get from Tidal is 48kHz/24-bit without employing the BDA-3.14’s internal upsampling option.