Four DACs from $699 to $3600

Channel Islands Transient Mk II, Lindemann USB-DAC 192/24, NuForce DAC-100, Synergistic Music Cable DAC

Equipment report
Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters
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Products:
Channel Islands Audio Transient Mk II,
Lindemann USB-DAC 24/192,
Nuforce DAC-100,
Synergistic Research Music Cable DAC
Four DACs from $699 to $3600

SIMPLICITY RULES

If you like simple ergonomics coupled with high performance, the Lindemann USB DAC 24/192 may be what you’ve been looking for. Connect a USB, S/PDIF, or TosLink input and get superb music from its single-ended RCA analog outputs. What’s not to like? Well, it might not be a stand-alone unit, since you could need a preamp or volume attenuation method if you aren’t using software to control volume. Also with its 1.4V maximum fixed output, passive preamp systems might lack sufficient gain to drive your system to full volume levels. But if you use the USB DAC 24/192 with an active preamp its output level won’t be a problem, and if audio quality is your primary purchase criteria you’ll be hard-pressed to find a DAC that convincingly beats it.

NUFORCE DAC-100 DAC/PREAMP ($1095)

NuForce’s emphasis on high performance at a moderate price has, in a few short years, transformed the brand from “Who dat?” to “Oh, them!” The NuForce DAC-100 marks its first foray into the product category of DAC/preamps. With a feature set that should work equally well in a computer desktop/ headphone system or a small-room computer-based system the NuForce DAC-100 packs a lot of features and technology into its svelte chassis.

Although it is part of NuForce’s home/desktop product line instead of its reference line, the DAC-100 is sonically and ergonomically a high-value product through and through. What you don’t get, and don’t have to pay for, is a fancy case, thick front panel, or elaborate chassis. The DAC-100’s dimensions are 9.5" by 8" by 2" high, putting it in a 3⁄4-width size category. And while it doesn’t take up much space, it does produce some heat, so giving it adequate ventilation, both below and above, is important for optimal operation.

ERGONOMIC ELEGANCE

NuForce calls the DAC-100 a DAC/preamp, which means it performs the functions of a DAC and a preamp. As a preamp the DAC-100 only supports digital sources. It has four inputs— USB 2.0, TosLink, and two S/PDIF RCA digital. For outputs the DAC-100 includes one pair of single-ended variable-output RCA connectors and a headphone jack on the front panel. The DAC- 100’s headphone output is designed to support headphones with an impedance range from 120 to 600 ohms, so it may not be suited for all headphones, especially high-sensitivity low- impedance in-ear models.

The front panel of the DAC-100 contains a rotating volume knob, three bit-rate indicator lights, four input buttons, and a headphone jack. The volume knob also doubles as a standby switch by pushing it inwards. On the back panel are all the inputs and outputs, and the standard IEC AC connector. The DAC- 100 comes with a credit-card sized remote that supports basic functions including on/off, volume level, input selection, and the all-important mute button.

Installation was simple: I merely plugged in a USB cable between the DAC-100 and my MacPro desktop computer and the Mac recognized the NuForce in the Sound Control Panel Attachment as “Nuforce 192k DAC—HS.” For PCs you can download the newest driver from NuForce’s Web site. I used the DAC-100 with a variety of Mac playback software including iTunes, Pure Music, Amarra, Audirvana Plus, Decibel, Fidelia, and Audacity with no compatibility issues.

One thing you can’t do with the DAC-100 is use it as a USB converter since it lacks any kind of digital output. If you plan to use it in conjunction with NuForce’s new DDA-100 digital integrated amplifier, the DAC-100 will be getting a digital feed from the DDA-100 via a TosLink connection, and since the DDA-100 will power the main speakers, the DAC-100 will be relegated to headphone-amplifier duties.

Since the DAC-100 only has one pair of line-level RCA outputs, using it in a system that has a subwoofer requires a wee bit of McGyvering. You can either attach Y-connectors to the RCA outputs on the back of the DAC-100 to give you two line- level feeds, or you can use the headphone output on the front panel. Most of the DAC/PREs I’ve reviewed, such as the April Music Eximus DP-1, mute their line-level output when you plug in headphones to their front panel, but the DAC-100 does not. Because both of the DAC-100 outputs are active and their volume levels are controlled by the same knob, you have a readily available source for the subwoofer feed; all you’ll need is a 1⁄4" stereo-to-female-stereo RCA adapter.

For most of the review the DAC-100 was connected directly to a pair of PSI A-14M powered monitors and a Velodyne DD+10 subwoofer (using the Y-connector scheme), but near the end I used it with NuForce’s DDA-100 ($549) direct-digital integrated amplifier, an Accuphase P-300 power amplifier, and a Parasound A-23 attached to several of my reference desktop speakers, including the Role Audio Canoe, Aerial Acoustics 5B, Silverline Minuet, and ATC SC-7 speakers.

The only ergonomic issue I experienced with the DAC-100 was with its volume knob. It felt slightly loose and sloppy. Also it doesn’t take very much pressure to push the knob in, muting the DAC-100, which may not have been your intention when you reached for the knob. I much prefer the volume knob on NuForce’s DDA-100, which looks and feels better.

If you look inside the DAC-100 you’ll find a very sophisticated audio instrument. With a 32-bit digital volume control instead of the more-common 24-bit variety, a single-ended 500-milliwatt headphone amplifier, and a non-upsampling 192/24 DAC, the DAC-100 delivers excellent published specifications for jitter, frequency response, and THD+N, as you can see on NuForce’s site.