Alas, as with every other DAC that I have auditioned— including the aforementioned dCS and Esoteric products— the BDA-2 can sound substantially better when driven by a SPDIF or AES/EBU source than via USB. To be sure, the manifestations of USB’s lingering deficiencies differ between these products. For example, via USB, both the Esoteric and Bryston homogenize timbres, dynamics, and textures, but do so differently. The D07-X renders everything with a superficial glaze or sheen, akin to the synthetic air-brushed “perfection” of the cover models on contemporary fashion magazines, while the BDA-2 imposes a barely perceptible foggy haze between the listener and the performers, reminiscent of the flattering soft- focus filters that glamorized the leading ladies of Hollywood’s golden era. Neither effect is a deal-breaker, and may even escape notice absent a superior non-USB source for comparison.
The BDA-2 substantially reduces the grainy textures and wiry edginess that have marred the sound of massed strings on lesser USB DACs, but it does not entirely eliminate these stubborn artifacts. However, here is a case where the BDA-2’s specific strengths tilt the balance in favor of Bryston’s USB implementation, since its intrinsic balance is so self-effacing, refined, and relaxed, in contrast with, for instance, the D07-X’s more forward presentation. Upgrading the USB cable from the baseline Belkin Gold to the reference-grade WireWorld Platinum Starlight wrought obvious across-the-board improvements in purity, dynamic contrast, impact, and scale. All things considered, since the BDA-2’s USB performance mirrors that of far more expensive products both in character and degree, it merits a strong recommendation to anyone looking for a USB DAC.
However, in order to unlock the full potential of the BDA-2, one must feed it from a superior source. In every conceivable parameter, the BDA-2’s performance took an unequivocal leap forward when connected to the SPDIF output of the ESI Juli@ sound card in my desktop PC. With the Juli@ card delivering the bits, the BDA- 2 sounded vibrant, rich, energetic, lithe, open, and engaging. In contrast, its presentation via USB sounded comparatively smaller, desaturated, muffled, and constrained, paralleling my experience with other premium DACs. Since I extolled the virtues of the ESI Juli@ in Issue 213, there is no need to belabor this point, other than to confirm that USB audio still has a way to go before it can compete with this inexpensive sound card.
Playback from optical disc players was also well-served by the BDA-2. As Alan Taffel observed in his review of the BDA-1, Bryston’s digital input circuitry exhibits less variation between SPDIF sources of varying quality than many DACs, and the BDA-2 continues this tradition. I use an admittedly off-the- wall technique to play high-resolution music from optical discs: feeding the HDMI output of an Oppo Blu-ray player into an HDCP-compliant “audio de-embedder” fitted with a standard SPDIF RCA output. (Non-intuitively, this arrangement sounds demonstrably better than the Oppo player’s SPDIF output!) Configuring the Oppo to decimate DSD to 88.2kHz PCM opened the door to the tantalizing prospect of utilizing an external DAC even for SACD playback. DSD purists may scoff at this approach, and indeed I used to prefer listening to SACDs decoded in their native DSD form via my previous Marantz disc players. But it’s imperative to keep an open mind and open ears. With the Oppo BDP-83, BDP-83SE, and BDP-93 I was surprised to find that I emphatically preferred the pitch stability, rhythmic precision, and solidity of SACDs when internally converted to PCM.
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 Juli@ 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.