Moving into mid-price territory, we find two noteworthy entrants to the crowded DAC field. First up is the Lynx Hilo, at $2495. Lynx is best known for its pro gear and sound cards, but the Hilo is meant to straddle both pro and consumer markets. The former will appreciate features like a separate output for monitors, word clock connectivity, balanced outputs, and the ability to run on batteries. Consumers get a built-in analog-to-digital converter, to accommodate the stray non-digital source, and DSD support. Over at T+A, attendees got their first glimpse of the DAC8 ($2800), which incorporates four DACs per channel in a full dual-mono design, complete with individual power supplies. A volume control, selectable filters, and a built-in headphone amp make this yet another in a line of well-conceived T+A products.
New digital transports are rare these days; that job has been largely subsumed by PCs and Macs. But if you already have a good DAC yet don’t feel like ripping your vast collection of CDs, Heed Audio has an answer. In fact, its Obelisk DT ($1900) was the only transport I saw at the show.
Notwithstanding all the upper-priced goodies on display in Newport Beach, the greatest digital activity and excitement was in the affordable product sector. Let’s start with Audioquest’s Dragonfly. What looks like a fancy fob is in fact a portable, asynchronous USB DAC that will support rates up to 96/24. The Dragonfly’s line output will drive a headphone amp, a linestage, even a power amp thanks to a built-in volume control. The concept is brilliant, and in addition this product has two exceedingly cool features. First, the volume control is in the analog domain, where it should be but rarely is. Second, the dragonfly on the Dragonfly is lit and changes color depending on the detected sample rate. The whole thing just screams cool. I begged for one but was told I’d have to wait my turn.
Another piece of gear that stirred my blood was MyTek’s Digital Stereo192-DSD-DAC. As the name implies, the focus of this little guy is DSD. In the most dumbfounding demo of the show, producer Cookie Marenco compared a Blue Coast solo violin recording, downloaded as a DSD file from Channel Classics, to the identical recording pressed into an SACD. Cookie played the file through the $1525 MyTek, then switched to the disc as spun by a $20k EMMlabs SACD player, which is no slouch. Both versions went through Sony SS-AR2 speakers. Folks, this was one of those two-seconds-and-it’s-all-over non-contests. The file obliterated the disc, which by comparison had shaky pace and collapsed space. The difference was so stark that one audience member asked, “Is this the same recording?” The demo crystalized the potential of downloadable DSD and DSD-compatible DACs, even at an eminently affordable price point. Are you listening David Chesky? HDTracks needs to support this format!
Another affordable digital entry was the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5 ($1299). Designed for those with high-quality but non-USB DACs, the Off-Ramp 5 will convert USB to HDMI, I2S, or S/PDIF. Parasound, that paragon of affordable gear, displayed a pair of Z-series issues. The Zdac (approx. $475, summer) supports USB, TosLink and S/PDIF inputs and has both single-ended and balanced outs, while the Zcd ($400) has a digital output and will handle mp3 files via a front-panel USB port.
All in all, the Newport Beach show had much to entice digital audio enthusiasts of every persuasion and bank account. I can’t wait to get my hands on some of this gear, even if it means once again temporarily foregoing weather, women, and cars.
Best Sound—Highest Value: The now-you-see-em-now-you-don’t Magnepan MMC2 wall speakers, with associated woofers, center channel, and Bryston gear was making typically natural, transparent Maggie sound at an eminently affordable price.