The BDA-2 portrays instruments with vivid three-dimensional body, precise focus, and rich timbres, but in a natural and unforced manner. It is the first DAC in my experience to completely eliminate “peak shriek”—the unfortunate tendency for high- level transients to induce momentary dynamic instability, thereby imposing a sharp, shrill edginess during musical peaks. We have had to put up with this fatiguing digital artifact for so long now that hearing a product that finally banishes it from the listening room is cause for a rousing standing ovation. I spent hours indulging in this unique virtue of the BDA-2, delighting in the freedom to enjoy digital music at louder levels than with lesser DACs—tellingly, with the same abandon that I experience when listening to records played on my Goldmund turntable.
Much of the BDA-2’s remarkable transparency must be due to its preternaturally low noise floor. Bryston cites a noise figure of -140dB, and turning my preamp volume control all the way up leaves no reason to doubt this claim. With electronic distortions reduced to vanishingly low levels, music blooms and decays with lifelike ease. This freedom from low-level interference is complemented by imperturbable handling of high-level crescendos, without overshoot or ringing. Listening to large-scale orchestral recordings through the BDA-2 is a revelation, as each instrument’s distinctive timbral signature is maintained without alteration throughout its full dynamic envelope.
Accustomed as we have become to the digital artifacts that tend to add glare, grain, or brightness in the upper octaves, some listeners may at first wonder if the BDA-2 is lacking in high-frequency extension. A quick listen to a well-recorded jazz album with ample percussion, such as Manu Katché’s Third Round [ECM], will quickly confirm that the only thing missing from the BDA-2’s treble range is distortion. Every cymbal crash and delicate brush stroke shimmers and breathes with beguiling harmonic complexity and an open, airy, natural decay.
Intriguingly, the BDA-2’s purity and “quietude” manifest in surprising, unexpected ways. On Santiago de Murcia’s Gaitas [Linn Records], William Carter’s baroque guitar was recorded in a large space, unfortunately shared with a particularly noisy air- circulation system. It is instructive to hear how the ambient sound of the room is conveyed by different components. The intrinsic “resolution floor” of many USB sources obscures much of the sound of the room, in a manner that is acoustically analogous to what happens visually when someone opens a door in a darkened movie theater, allowing light to spill onto the screen, obscuring shadow details with an amorphous, undifferentiated gray haze. Through Bryston’s BDP-1 and BDA-1, one can hear all manner of fluctuations in air pressure and reflections around the room, surrounding the small guitar.
I was quite startled when I first played this track through the BDA-2, wondering, “Hey, where’s the noise?” However, after a few seconds of acclimation, I found that the ambient room sound was simply being “decoded” in an entirely different manner, intermodulating less with the direct sound of the guitar. Put another way, the BDA-2 was doing such a superior job of reproducing both the guitar and the air conditioner as familiar, identifiable, distinct sound sources, that the brain could more easily isolate the “subject” from the “background,” and thus more effectively tune out the annoying air-conditioner noise, and focus on Carter’s exquisite playing—just as we do when listening to live music in real spaces with similar ambient background noise levels. I smiled with appreciative recognition at this realization, since it paralleled my experience hearing the legendary Goldmund Reference turntable in the mid-1980s.
Most audio components tend to render the spatial dimensions of recordings with some degree of editorial perspective. For example, the Esoteric D-07X presents the listener with an upfront, immersive experience, emphasizing immediacy and expansive width. The Bryston BDA-1 opts for a seat farther back in the hall, with correspondingly reduced size, but appropriate scale. The dCS Debussy paints an altogether larger, more illuminated picture than the BDA-1, albeit one viewed through a scrim of ultra-fine mesh. In direct side-by-side comparisons, I can easily understand why different listeners might prefer one of these interpretations over the others.
Here again, the BDA-2 just doesn’t play by the same rules. I hear no intrinsic spatial characteristics whatsoever from this DAC. Instead of “throwing a soundstage” or “bringing the musicians into your room,” the BDA-2 does something quite unlike anything that I have ever heard before. It is as if the end of my listening room behind the plane of the speakers has been removed, leaving an open-air view into the recording venue itself, with life-sized proportions, scale, and volume. Perhaps paradoxically, this absence of spatial coloration does endow the BDA-2 with a distinctive perspective. Because instruments and performers are rendered with a much more realistic sense of distance than we are accustomed to hearing, the surrounding space logically extends far beyond the listening room boundaries, especially in depth. Some listeners might initially find the BDA-2 “laid-back” or “recessed”; it takes a little time to move past our preconceived categorical constraints, and embrace the paradigm shift implicit in the BDA-2’s radical advance in conveying spatial relationships. The sensation of being in the presence of live musicians is uncannily realistic, yet un-spectactularly natural.