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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. 

 

Setup and Ergonomics
When I received the BDA-3.14, initially I set it up as a source, with its XLR balanced analog outputs set to fixed level, feeding the balanced XLR inputs of a Mytek Manhattan II. The Manhattan was connected to a Pass X150.8 power amplifier driving a pair of Spatial Audio X-2 loudspeakers. The Manhattan was also connected to a pair of JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofers configured for stereo. Input sources included a Mac Mini via USB 2, Oppo BDP-83 Extreme, Tidal, Qobuz, and my NAS drive. After the initial break-in period I reconfigured the system for the Bryston BDA-3.14, replacing the Manhattan as the control device and connecting the BDA-3.14’s analog outputs to the Pass amplifier and JL Audio subwoofers.

My first interactions with Bryston’s control app, Maniac Moose, sent me running back to Roon as my preferred control application. Manic Moose is web-based, so you must use a web browser on whatever device you choose to control the BDA-3.14 with Moose. PC users, or anyone else used to working with less-than-intuitive devices, should be able to stumble through the Moose’s configuration and setup with little outside assistance, but those used to a simpler-to-understand, more user-friendly experience, such as Mac OS users, may find the Manic Moose could make them even more manic. The BDA-3.14 owner’s manual did not help, since it only mentions MPD (which is Bryston’s music server application) in passing, with no step-by-step instructions for initialization. Setting up the MPD properly, which is important if you do not use Roon, necessitated a phone call to Bryston support to get everything up and running. Gary Dayton, Bryston’s tech guy, did a remote computer takeover to show me how to properly configure the BDA-3.14. It really wasn’t hard and took him almost no time at all, but an online step-by-step tutorial would have saved me a phone call to Gary. And while the Manic Moose control app now works and is ergonomically a step above player/control apps such as BubbleUPnP or mControl, if you are used to Roon I doubt you will switch over to Manic Moose. Given that Manic Moose is approximately five years old, it’s due for a make-over (or replacement), and a well-placed source told me that the replacement may arrive in late fall.

The BDA-3.14 comes packaged with a small, unprepossessing remote control. While you can make input selections, turn the unit on and off, and activate the muting from the front panel, all other control functions require the remote, a pad, or a smartphone. If you intend to use Manic Moose as your control app, you will need to make sure that your pad or smartphone can connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi because it relies on a web-based interface. I used my desktop Mac, iPhone, and Sony Experia Android pad to access and use Manic Moose with no issues. As with Roon and other music apps, the user experience with Manic Moose is much better on a pad or PC than with a phone, where the small display makes it harder to see all the functions and to access features.

I will admit that most of my listening time was spent using Roon rather than Manic Moose. While Manic Moose offered access to all my sources including Tidal, Qobuz, and everything on my NAS drive, like most manufacturer-supplied playback apps it does not have the level of control, selection, metadata access, and flexibility of Roon. Plus, due to my experience with the app, I know how to make Roon sing and dance, which is something that I couldn’t quite manage with Manic Moose.

Once it was properly configured, I found the BDA-3.14 to be quite stable with no operational quirks besides the need to switch in and out of Roon or MVP mode when and if I needed to change from Roon to MVP mode. I found that using two smart devices with the BDA-3.14 made it even easier to use if the remote wasn’t handy—one connected to my Roon Core for music selection while the other linked with Maniac Moose for switching and control functions.

Sound
How does the Bryston BDA-3.14 sound? Given that its DAC and its analog output sections are identical to those in the Bryston BDA-3, one could assume that it would produce a similar level of sound quality. When Karl Shuster reviewed the BDA-3 in Issue 275 of The Absolute Sound, he was so smitten that he purchased his review sample as a reference. The BDA-3 reviewer from Stereophile also purchased his review sample. [And TAS reviewer Alan Taffel just bought a Bryston BCD-3 CD player, whose DAC is identical to that in the BDA-3.14.—RH]

My current reference DAC/pre/streamers in my main room system are the Mytek Manhattan II and the PS Audio DSD jr. Because real-time A/B comparisons with rapid switching of DAC/preamplifiers were not practical without employing additional devices that could affect conclusions, I opted for longer listening sessions where I used primarily my own recordings augmented by particular high-definition tracks via Tidal and Qobuz.

 

My overall impression of the BDA-3.14’s is that it attempts and, for me, succeeds in being an extremely neutral DAC/pre with a “straight-no-chaser” approach that does not prettify or euphonize the sound. Also, it’s a stable design that is deadly silent, with nary a hiccup or burble even with its volume turned up to max and my ears a scant few inches away from my loudspeaker’s tweeter.

On my own DSD5.6 masters I was able to hear all the minute low-level details that I’m accustomed to hearing through my current references, the Manhattan and DSD jr. The BDA-3.14 was easily able to decode and illuminate the subtle spatial informational cues I know are in my recordings. I often use my open-air recording of three quarters of the Punch Brothers doing a workshop/mini-concert at the Rockygrass Academy to size up a system’s ability to produce a coherent three-dimensional soundfield that preserves spatial cues. During one tune, a service vehicle rumbles by in the background approximately thirty feet behind the players, tracking from extreme right across the soundfield and disappearing on the left as it continues down a dirt road. The BDA-3.14 rendered this aural landscape with reference-level three-dimensional accuracy. 

Listening to the latest, just released, Plangent Processed version of the Grateful Dead’s Working Man’s Dead 50th Anniversary release through the BDA-3.14 via Tidal MQA, as well as 192/24 WAV files from my hard drive, I was impressed by how much easier it was to listen into both of these versions compared with the original 44.1 mix, both played back through the BDA-3.14. Vocals that on earlier versions were a murky homogenous mess, now were clearly defined into three and occasionally even four-part harmonies. Also, Jerry Garcia’s pedal-steel guitar parts were no longer vague noodling afterthoughts, but clear musical statements. Between the new mix and the BDA-3.14’s midrange clarity, listening to this latest version was a revelation.

The extension and overall speed of my system’s bass response remained first-rate with the BDA-3.14 handling preamp duties. One of my guilty musical pleasures is pop music with a strong, four-in-the-floor, 120-beats-per-minute, Niles-Rogers’-approved “disco” beat. Many feature the bass lines, often combining synth with electric bass tracks. Being lithe enough to keep the bass clean and unhomogenized while giving the music its dynamic due challenges an audio system’s “speed,” and a room’s ability to dispel bass energy quickly without trying to sing along. The BDA-3.14 did a fine job of keeping the bottom end neat, clear, and very danceable. Give Banks’ “Gimme” from Qobuz a spin and see if your system can control all the bass transients successfully. My system with the BDA-3.14 installed in it sure could, with subtlety and finesse.

Even the most hardcore solid-state fanatic will grudgingly grant, usually over a scotch, that tube electronics often have a lovely beguiling midrange that can inject an additional bit of verisimilitude into a system’s sound. Cool, but that’s not the BDA-3.14’s midrange. Listening to the track “If You Leave Me Now” by Charlie Puth with Boyz II Men via Tidal, I was suitably impressed by the purity of the sound, which made it easy to hear which singer was employing some electronic assistance. No, with the BDA-3.14 you get Class A solid-state, clean, clear, WISWIG, with no sonic embellishment or “mojo” added to the music itself. I personally prefer that. But, if you want to add some tube electronic ”magic,” you can easily route the BDA-3.14’s outputs into a tube-based analog preamplifier.

Currently my hearing extends to 13kHz, and although I can no longer hear a TV flyback tone (if there were still a CRT TV around to emit one), my high-frequency hearing below that point has, if anything, become more sensitive within my upper-end range limits, especially to IM distortion and hash. On the 192/24 WAV of “St. Stephen” from the Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa—The Complete Studio Collections, all the little tinkles and tiny bells came through with same startling purity, just as when I first heard them 50 years ago, due to both the mix and the BDA-3.14’s ultra-clean presentation. On intentionally rude-sounding cuts such as The Bottle Rockets “Headed for Ditch” from Brand New Year, which contains the priceless line “they want Mercedes Benz but all they got are BMWs,” the BDA-3.14 lets the rudeness come through without buffing off any of the rough edges or intentional guitar-grunge nastiness. But at the same time that it sounds rude, it remains listenable, even running 99dB peaks at the listening position.

Summary
Since high-performance audio became “a thing,” audio manufacturers have come and gone. Many have been short-lived establishments offering “bleeding-edge” performance with equally short warrantees on products with limited lifespans. Bryston is different. Because Bryston’s roots were in pro audio, where long-term reliability is crucial to success, longevity has always been part of Bryston’s DNA. No other audio firm offers a 20-year warranty and is still around to honor it. This is one of the reasons that audiophiles seeking high-value components have embraced Bryston gear since 1976. As an example, I have employed five Bryston Powerpac 120 monoblock power amplifiers in various applications and systems (including P.A. and subwoofer) for nineteen years, and they are still functioning within spec as far as I know and still under warranty, if by chance one does go down. That’s value.

The Bryston BDA-3.14’s goal was to offer a similar level of overall performance as the BDA-3, while adding streaming options and a volume control, and upping cost by a mere $400. I think it was successful. And if I were in the market for a new DAC, with the intention of keeping it as long as possible, the BDA-3.14 would be a prime candidate for acquisition. The BDA-3.14 is a first-class component that could be the center of a high-performance digital audio system—maybe even yours.

Specs & Pricing

Type: DAC/streamer/digital preamplifier
Inputs: Four USB HD; one USB 1; one USB 2; TosLink; SPDIF RCA and BNC; AES/EBU; two Ethernet; USB; and RS 232 
Formats supported: Up to 384/32 PCM, 512DSD, WAV, FLAC, AIFF
Output: One pair balanced XLR, one pair unbalanced RCA fixed or variable output
Dimensions: 17″ x 3.4″ x 12″
Weight: 8.5 lbs./4 kg
Price: $4195

BRYSTON LIMITED
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 7Y4
Canada
(800) 632-8217
bryston.com

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