Near the end of the review period I had some issues with noise on some of my own 96/24 and 192/24 (downsampled on the fly) recordings played back through the D1. Problems occurred on my Apple Mac Pro Tower when multiple programs were open, and began as faint clicks that increased in intensity and volume till the selection stopped playing completely. Closing and then re-opening the music playback software usually solved the problem, but it occurred on multiple occasions with all of the music playback programs I use regularly including Audirvana, Pure Music, and Amarra.
Given its price and Audioengine’s reputation, I was expecting good, but not necessarily great, sound from the D1. My expectations were shattered (in a good way) after only a few minutes of listening. The D1 was easily better than good, and while it didn’t outperform the $3200 April Music Eximus DP1 DAC/Pre or $1495 Wyred4Sound DAC2, it did deliver nearly their level of sonic finesse. Music heard through the Audioengine D1 doesn’t sound merely decent but also is emotionally involving.
The D1’s overall harmonic balance is surprisingly neutral with little in the way of sonic bromides or extra warmth to make the sound warmer or more musical. And while the D1’s harmonic signature doesn’t warm up the sound, its lack of coloration, especially in the upper registers, makes for a very low-fatigue yet revealing presentation. For listeners who are used to the hyped-up upper registers of many inexpensive DACs the D1 may seem dark or lacking in upper-frequency air. However, I found the D1’s treble presentation to be spot on, especially on my own live recordings.
Imaging specificity and overall soundstage size through the D1 were among its best characteristics. Soundstage width equaled more expensive DACs, including the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II ($379), while the D1’s depth and three-dimensionality were only slightly truncated in comparison. Lateral image specificity was also excellent, surrendering only a wee bit of edge definition compared to the Eximus PD1 DAC/pre. When listened to by itself, it was hard to fault the D1’s dimensional rendition. Only in direct matched level A/B comparisons were the D1’s shortcomings noticeable.
The D1’s excellent lateral width and image specificity carried over to its headphone section. Imaging through both the AKG 701 and Grado RS-1 headphones was both spacious and precise. On densely populated pop recordings, such as George Harrison’s “Cloud Nine” title cut from his 1987 solo effort [Cloud Nine, Capitol], each instrument maintained its locational identity regardless of how busy the mix became.
The D1’s dynamics were impressive, but not in the ordinary way—that is, with wide volume swings and crushing crescendos. No, the D1 excels at the subtle micro stuff, which isn’t usually a budget-priced DAC’s forte. On big contrast swings the D1 is Okay, nothing that will make you spill your drink. But if you listen into the mix, the D1 has the ability to allow each instrument to dynamically breath. Vocalists especially benefit from the D1’s ability to retain and transmit even the smallest changes in their delivery’s intensity.
The D1’s special dynamic capabilities were readily apparent during headphone listening. Especially when I listened through the Pure Music or Amarra playback software, every instrument in a mix seemed to have its own independent dynamic energy. On the George Harrison cut I mentioned earlier, each electric guitar, and I counted at least four, remained independent and dynamically unique as they moved, from the front to the back of the mix, with an almost human breathing motion.
Both through headphones and line level outputs, the Audioengine D1s overall resolving abilities were also worthy of special note. While not unkind to 320 kbps MP3 music files, with 44.1/16 bit and higher rez files the Audioengine D1 gets right down to the inner workings of the music. On the GoGo’s rendition of “The Cool Jerk” off the band's Greatest Hits CD [A&M] each drum hit and vocal part has its own phase-shifted reverb trail. The D1 keeps all this low level stuff from homogenizing together.
On the Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa album [Rhino] there’s a tune, “Doin' That Rag,” that includes one of the more bizarre spatial effects I’ve ever heard. At 00:14 Jerry Garcia’s disembodied voice comes floating out from WAY outside the right side and slightly BEHIND the listener’s head. The first time I heard it I had to call in my wife, Suzanne, to sit down and listen, to find out, without telling her what to expect, if she heard the same thing, to make sure I wasn’t suffering from aural hallucinations. I’m sure it’s a phase trick, but with better DACs Jerry’s vocals seem to come simultaneously from three spots: left of center in the mix, outside the right-hand speaker and, most disconcertingly, from a location just outside your right ear. The Audioengine D1 does this eerie aural slight-of-hand trick as well as any of my reference DACs, including the Eximus DP1 tethered to the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 4.