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

The Bryston BDA-2 sounded delightful playing the 88.2kHz signal derived from SACDs, whether effortlessly revealing the subtle interplay among guitar, organ, and drums on The Wes Montgomery Trio’s essential October 1959 Riverside recording or the complex dynamic shadings and meticulous rhythms of Paavo Jarvi’s captivating performance of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale [PentaTone]. Despite the “heretical” conversion of DSD to PCM by the Oppo player, the BDA-2’s timbral purity, relaxed fluidity, and refined ebullience dovetailed exquisitely with the virtues of SACD.

As wonderful as the BDA-2 sounded with both the Oppo player and the ESI [email protected] sound card, its performance entered another realm entirely when playing music files from Bryston’s BDP-1 Digital Player (reviewed in Issue 215). My initial reaction to this combination betrayed that dumbfounded sense of momentary confusion that accompanies first exposure to something defying expectation. Driven by this reference-grade digital source, the BDA-2 simply does not sound “digital.” It imposes none of the usual digital artifacts on the music: no grainy texturing, no edge, no glare, no smearing, no frequency-specific colorations, no level-dependent distortions of spatial perspective.

The BDA-2 portrays instruments with vivid three-dimensional body, precise focus, and rich timbres, but in a natural and unforced manner. It is the first DAC in my experience to completely eliminate “peak shriek”—the unfortunate tendency for high- level transients to induce momentary dynamic instability, thereby imposing a sharp, shrill edginess during musical peaks. We have had to put up with this fatiguing digital artifact for so long now that hearing a product that finally banishes it from the listening room is cause for a rousing standing ovation. I spent hours indulging in this unique virtue of the BDA-2, delighting in the freedom to enjoy digital music at louder levels than with lesser DACs—tellingly, with the same abandon that I experience when listening to records played on my Goldmund turntable.

Much of the BDA-2’s remarkable transparency must be due to its preternaturally low noise floor. Bryston cites a noise figure of -140dB, and turning my preamp volume control all the way up leaves no reason to doubt this claim. With electronic distortions reduced to vanishingly low levels, music blooms and decays with lifelike ease. This freedom from low-level interference is complemented by imperturbable handling of high-level crescendos, without overshoot or ringing. Listening to large-scale orchestral recordings through the BDA-2 is a revelation, as each instrument’s distinctive timbral signature is maintained without alteration throughout its full dynamic envelope.

Accustomed as we have become to the digital artifacts that tend to add glare, grain, or brightness in the upper octaves, some listeners may at first wonder if the BDA-2 is lacking in high-frequency extension. A quick listen to a well-recorded jazz album with ample percussion, such as Manu Katché’s Third Round [ECM], will quickly confirm that the only thing missing from the BDA-2’s treble range is distortion. Every cymbal crash and delicate brush stroke shimmers and breathes with beguiling harmonic complexity and an open, airy, natural decay.

Intriguingly, the BDA-2’s purity and “quietude” manifest in surprising, unexpected ways. On Santiago de Murcia’s Gaitas [Linn Records], William Carter’s baroque guitar was recorded in a large space, unfortunately shared with a particularly noisy air- circulation system. It is instructive to hear how the ambient sound of the room is conveyed by different components. The intrinsic “resolution floor” of many USB sources obscures much of the sound of the room, in a manner that is acoustically analogous to what happens visually when someone opens a door in a darkened movie theater, allowing light to spill onto the screen, obscuring shadow details with an amorphous, undifferentiated gray haze. Through Bryston’s BDP-1 and BDA-1, one can hear all manner of fluctuations in air pressure and reflections around the room, surrounding the small guitar.