I wanted to throw another variable into this aural showdown and choose an album that I have on vinyl and digital. If you haven’t heard Zero 7’s When It Falls, it’s an absolute must-own. This genre-bending album employs multiple “jazz” singers— both male and female—throws in violins, pianos, electric basses, and acoustic guitars, then interlaces everything with down-tempo ambient music to create an intoxicating sound. If you’ve seen the movie Garden State, or TV shows like Top Gear, CSI, or Smallville, then you’ve heard Zero 7. So I pulled out the vinyl version of When It Falls, threw it on an analog setup that cost the same as the RDD-1580, and A/B compared the digital to the vinyl. I’m going to get hate mail for saying this, but on the track “Somersault,” underrated jazz singer Sia Furler sounded much better than with the vinyl setup of similar cost, not to mention that the instruments were more distinctly defined within the soundstage. Even though I liked the “vinyl sound” more than the digital, it couldn’t compete with the RDD-1580’s imaging, lack of smear, and superb dynamics. Before this, if someone would have asked me, “For $800, should I go digital or vinyl?” I would have said vinyl all day long. Yet, the RDD-1580 made me reconsider that question, and then ultimately decide in favor of it over an analog front end for the same price. Yes, I’m going on record and saying that if you have $800 and have to choose between vinyl and digital, buy the RDD-1580 first.
But maybe that was just a fluke, eh? Let’s try the same vinyl/ digital comparison with James Blake’s “Retrograde” from his second album, Overgrown. This track features Blake’s incredible vocal range as he hums R&B-style up and down the octaves, backed by a simple beat and piano. Yet again, the RDD-1580 easily beat out the other DAC and comparable analog front end. The RDD-1580’s soundstage was deeper, the piano was spatially separate from the vocals and the beat, and everything sounded tighter. I did the same test again with Portugal. The Man [sic], Neko Case, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, ZZ Top, and dozens more, and each time the RDD-1580 outperformed the “other DAC” and the analog setup.
I wanted to do this same “triple comparison” in another system located in an entirely different room, so I went over to a fellow audiophile’s house and began the process all over again. I didn’t necessarily expect the same conclusions, but I was curious whether I simply preferred the sound of the RDD-1580 through my amp/speaker combination. Maybe the RDD-1580 better complements my system, I thought. After three or four hours of A/B/C testing, it was abundantly clear that the RDD-1580 still sounded better than the alternatives in my friend’s system. A couple days later, I received an e-mail from this friend, who had gone out and purchased the DAC for himself. If you are in the market for a DAC and have a max budget of $1000, you would be foolish not to audition the RDD-1580.
Other Likes, and a Few Minor Dislikes
Like I said earlier, the RDD-1580 comes with a remote, which when connected via USB controlled Play, SkiP Forward, and SkiP Back; obviously this didn’t work with the other inputs. But these controls were a little finicky: The PauSe button didn’t work via USB, but if you hit the Play button again it would pause the track. I could skip forward and back with the respective buttons, but I couldn’t fast forward, nor was there any volume-control capability. I used the RDD-1580’s remote mainly because it was faster than unlocking my iPad, letting the Remote app sync, and then trying to control the computer. But ultimately I preferred using the iPad to control the computer, rather than Rotel’s remote.
This next one might just be my personal preference, but the blue indicator light, which rings the circumference of the RDD-1580’s power button, stays illuminated whether the DAC is on or in standby mode. Several times I thought the DAC was on when it was actually in standby, and vice versa. The only way to tell if the DAC is actually on is to look at the small input indicator light, or the sample-rate indicator. Again, this isn’t a huge deal, though it is somewhat strange to not indicate on/standby individually.
Another thing that might throw a lot of people off is the fact that you need to manually switch between USB 1.0 and USB 2.0 modes by holding the PC-USB input button for five seconds (this is a one time thing). Windows users will need to install a supplied driver in order to utilize USB 2.0. For Mac users, this is already taken care of, but I couldn’t determine whether the switch from USB 1.0 to 2.0 actually made a difference in my Mac setup, because the 192kHz indicator light was illuminated before I read the owner’s manual (I might have been overeager).
I really like the RDD-1580’s sleek, slim design; the review sample I received came with the silver faceplate, which just so happens to match a lot of my other gear. Plus, the RDD-1580 ran surprisingly cool, which means that you could place a preamp on top of it without worries; this is most likely due to the fact that it only draws 25W when on, and less that 0.5W when in standby.
Another really cool feature is that you can stream music via Bluetooth when the supplied Bluetooth adaptor is plugged in to the front-panel USB input. The Bluetooth dongle is tiny and unobtrusive, and was a lot of fun to use when I worked on my laptop and wanted to stream music from my favorite listening chair. You can also stream music from smartphones and tablets, but I didn’t test out what would happen if multiple devices tried to connect via Bluetooth simultaneously, à la during a party where multiple people want to play phone DJ.
Aside from these few minor things, the RDD-1580 was flawless, both in features and in sound quality. It is by far the best DAC that I’ve heard in this price range, and probably would beat out most DACs double or triple its price. Does it beat out a $10,000 DAC? Sorry Rotel, but the big boys still win in overall sonics (not to mention DSD capability). But if you are looking for a DAC that costs even $2500, don’t overlook the RDD-1580. I definitely hope Rotel will let me hang on to this one a while longer.
SPECS & PRICING
Inputs: Two digital coax; two optical TosLink; one PC-USB; one front-panel USB
Output: RCA; XLR
DAC: Dual Wolfson WM8740s
Frequency response: 10Hz-95kHz
S/PDIF LPCM: up to 192kHz/24-bit
Rear-panel USB: Asynchronous, 192kHz/24-bit
Front-panel USB: Up to 48kHz/16-bit
Dimensions: 17" x 2 1/8" x 12 1/2"
Weight: 11.24 lbs.
ROTEL OF AMERICA
54 Concord St.
North Reading, MA 01864