So you have decent headphones and a dedicated headphone amplifier…what’s the next step for improving your computer’s audio sonics? It’s time to get an external Digital-to-Analog Converter or DAC. One good option is the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II. Priced at only $349, the V-DAC II is aimed at folks looking for their first outboard DAC as well as audiophiles looking for a lightweight portable DAC to couple with their portable computer-based audio system. And although the V-DAC II isn’t as fully featured as some DACs, it delivers all the essential features Musical Fidelity thinks you need.
Audio highlights: The Musical Fidelity V-DAC II replaces the original three-year old V-DAC. Improvements include the case, which is now made of satin-finished brushed aluminum with heavier gauge end-pieces than the original. The USB input is an asynchronous connection that is identical to the chipset Musical Fidelity uses in their V-Link, and it supports up to 96/24 via USB 2.0. (The V-DAC II’s S/PDIF inputs, however, do support 192/24 files.). Other improvements over the original V-DAC include halving the distortion from 0.005% to 0.002% and upping the stereo separation to -105 dB. Inside the V-DAC II you’ll find the latest digital chips, a Burr-Brown DSD 1796 DAC and a Burr-Brown SRC 4392. With a fixed output of 2.2 volts the V-DAC II should be compatible with almost all two-channel preamps or active speakers.
Ergonomics: The Musical Fidelity V-DAC II is housed in a small, rectangular satin/silver box approximately 6⅔” by 3” by 1⅔.” One end has a single pair of RCA outputs while the other has input connections for S/PDIF, Toslink, and USB. This end also has a small toggle switch to choose between USB to S/PDIF, a blue power LED, and a green signal lock LED. Printing on the top plate identifies each input and shows the signal chain. There’s no remote.
Does the V-DAC II have any sonic limitations? Well, yes, in that it only supports up to 96/24 bit-rates via its USB input. Obviously, if you listen to music from CDs and MP3s this 96/24 ceiling won’t be a problem, but if you plan to use 192/24 music files you’ll need to use the V-DAC II’s S/PDIF inputs for that purpose.
In the good old days reviewing DACs was easy because the sound quality differences between entry level DACs and the crème de la crème was wider and deeper than the Marianas Trench. Today that difference has shrunk down to gap that even a gymnastic mouse would be hard pressed to fit through. Top echelon DACs have gotten better, but entry level DACs have improved faster.
Much of my reviewing time was spent listening to the V-DAC II connected to one of the analog inputs of an April Music Eximus DP-1 DAC/pre. I also had an Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 4 USB conversion box connected to one of the Eximus’ S/PDIF digital inputs. With this set-up I was able to do direct A/B comparisons between the V-DAC II and the Empirical/Eximus combo. Using Pure Music 1.85 I could go from one to the other via PM’s audio control configuration box—it only takes about 15 seconds to do the switch.
After many hours of listening to a wide variety of sources I can confidently write that the Musical Fidelity is a VERY good DAC. Is it as good as the almost $5000 Empirical/Eximus combination? Nope, but it is much closer than the monetary difference between the two rigs. Where did the VDAC fall down? Compared to the double E rig the V-DAC II lacks some image specificity and dimensionality. Also the mid and low bass through the V-DAC II is not quite as fast, firm, or dynamically nimble as the E/E. Finally the E/E rig has a bit better low-level definition and inner detail. This was most noticeable on my own 96/24 recordings (mix-downs from DSD) that I’m very familiar with—on many commercial pop recordings the differences between the two set-ups were much harder to discern.
Near the end of the review period the Eximus DAC had to go back to the factory for an update so I replaced it with the Wired4Sound DAC. For A/B tests I also pulled out an April Music Stello HP100 Headphone amplifier. The Stello has two analog inputs so I was able to connect it with one input attached to the V-DAC II while the other took the analog single ended output from the Wyred4Sound. With this system I could compare the V-DAC II with the Wyred4Sound fed from either an Empirical Off-Ramp 4 or a Matrix USB converter, a $60 lipstick-sized 96/24 converter available through Ebay.