Bryston BDA-2 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Presence From Absence

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters
Bryston BDA-2
Bryston BDA-2 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Unfortunately, my decade-old Windows XP desktop PC did not like Bryston’s USB driver at all; regardless of the output mode that I selected (ASIO, Kernel Streaming, and even DirectSound for diagnostic purposes), every time that I attempted to begin playback the computer crashed with an alarming “blue screen of death” Stop error. This was not an auspicious start. Fortunately, Bryston’s USB driver has worked well on my Dell Latitude D620 notebook PC, with nary an operational glitch.

The BDA-2’s asynchronous USB input must be judged a resounding success, fully competitive with the relative performance of other top-class USB implementations that I have had the privilege of hearing, such as those of the Esoteric D-07X and dCS Debussy DACs. Indeed, because of its particular strengths, the BDA-2 will be especially appealing to listeners seeking to maximize enjoyment from USB sources. The overriding impression of music played via the BDA-2’s USB input is one of relaxed ease and unflustered composure. Tonality exhibits a rounded, mellow, non-fatiguing character. Rhythms are well preserved, and spatial relationships are clearly portrayed.

Alas, as with every other DAC that I have auditioned— including the aforementioned dCS and Esoteric products— the BDA-2 can sound substantially better when driven by a SPDIF or AES/EBU source than via USB. To be sure, the manifestations of USB’s lingering deficiencies differ between these products. For example, via USB, both the Esoteric and Bryston homogenize timbres, dynamics, and textures, but do so differently. The D07-X renders everything with a superficial glaze or sheen, akin to the synthetic air-brushed “perfection” of the cover models on contemporary fashion magazines, while the BDA-2 imposes a barely perceptible foggy haze between the listener and the performers, reminiscent of the flattering soft- focus filters that glamorized the leading ladies of Hollywood’s golden era. Neither effect is a deal-breaker, and may even escape notice absent a superior non-USB source for comparison.

The BDA-2 substantially reduces the grainy textures and wiry edginess that have marred the sound of massed strings on lesser USB DACs, but it does not entirely eliminate these stubborn artifacts. However, here is a case where the BDA-2’s specific strengths tilt the balance in favor of Bryston’s USB implementation, since its intrinsic balance is so self-effacing, refined, and relaxed, in contrast with, for instance, the D07-X’s more forward presentation. Upgrading the USB cable from the baseline Belkin Gold to the reference-grade WireWorld Platinum Starlight wrought obvious across-the-board improvements in purity, dynamic contrast, impact, and scale. All things considered, since the BDA-2’s USB performance mirrors that of far more expensive products both in character and degree, it merits a strong recommendation to anyone looking for a USB DAC.

However, in order to unlock the full potential of the BDA-2, one must feed it from a superior source. In every conceivable parameter, the BDA-2’s performance took an unequivocal leap forward when connected to the SPDIF output of the ESI [email protected] sound card in my desktop PC. With the [email protected] card delivering the bits, the BDA- 2 sounded vibrant, rich, energetic, lithe, open, and engaging. In contrast, its presentation via USB sounded comparatively smaller, desaturated, muffled, and constrained, paralleling my experience with other premium DACs. Since I extolled the virtues of the ESI [email protected] in Issue 213, there is no need to belabor this point, other than to confirm that USB audio still has a way to go before it can compete with this inexpensive sound card.

Playback from optical disc players was also well-served by the BDA-2. As Alan Taffel observed in his review of the BDA-1, Bryston’s digital input circuitry exhibits less variation between SPDIF sources of varying quality than many DACs, and the BDA-2 continues this tradition. I use an admittedly off-the- wall technique to play high-resolution music from optical discs: feeding the HDMI output of an Oppo Blu-ray player into an HDCP-compliant “audio de-embedder” fitted with a standard SPDIF RCA output. (Non-intuitively, this arrangement sounds demonstrably better than the Oppo player’s SPDIF output!) Configuring the Oppo to decimate DSD to 88.2kHz PCM opened the door to the tantalizing prospect of utilizing an external DAC even for SACD playback. DSD purists may scoff at this approach, and indeed I used to prefer listening to SACDs decoded in their native DSD form via my previous Marantz disc players. But it’s imperative to keep an open mind and open ears. With the Oppo BDP-83, BDP-83SE, and BDP-93 I was surprised to find that I emphatically preferred the pitch stability, rhythmic precision, and solidity of SACDs when internally converted to PCM.