Listen, for example, to the first in the lovely collection of Dvorák’s Serenades from Bohemia [Praga]. Through either of these DACs, one can clearly hear the purposefully steady tempo set out by the violin; the trading of the thematic line from strings, to piano, to woodwinds; the way each instrument uses dynamics to momentarily take the spotlight or step out of it; and the perfect synchrony of the ritard as the piece concludes. Sure, the recording also sounds good, with sweet timbres and a finely rendered soundstage, but this is so much more.
Reading the above, without hearing the units themselves, one might too easily plop the BDA-1 and DAC7 into the category of “analytical” components. In a way, they are, in that they reveal a great deal about what is going on below the surface. But we typically associate the term “analytical” with cold-sounding products that lack cohesion and soul, and require the listener to synthesize all the information into an integrated whole. That is manifestly not the case here. Instead, both these DACs are warm as the sun and, like that great bite of food, not only reveal the ingredients, but explain and combine them for you. This makes these DACs not only the most informative I have ever heard, but also the easiest and most relaxing to listen to. This is no mean feat. Indeed, it is revolutionary.
Although these abilities go a long way toward recreating the live experience, that experience is still not quite complete. One thing neither of these DACs can do is transport listeners to the original performance venue, a limitation inherent in their ability to play only two channels. Stereo will never enfold listeners in an acoustic embrace the way good multichannel can. However, for a host of practical reasons, most of us must simply set that particular dream aside.
In terms of sheer sonics, the Bryston and ARC share many qualities—but also differ in presentation and operation. By now this may go without saying, but both DACs deliver richly detailed timbres, have astoundingly high resolution, offer dynamics both nuanced and bold, and can paint wide deep soundstages. Both can be exquisitely delicate, as on the opening of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and both can rock out, as they do on the Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter.” To my chagrin, both the BDA-1 and DAC7 handily put my reference unit to shame.
The ARC is the brighter of the two, but not in any negative sense of the term. The DAC7 just shines a brighter floodlight on the proceedings, and places the listener closer to the musicians than does the Bryston. The ARC also boasts better bass—with terrific definition and character—which gives it a warmer overall tonality. For its part, the Bryston offers more precise timing, slightly purer timbres, and sharper leading edges. This last characteristic renders the Bryston a bit more revealing, but also makes the ARC more forgiving on inferior recordings.
Differences between these DACs also relate to musical presentation. Although both DACs deliver the “heart of the performance” experience, they do not go about doing so in quite the same way. The Bryston is the more probing of the two, relaying the greater wealth of information about the composition and the performance. To extend the food analogy, the Bryston is more like deconstructionist cuisine. The ARC, on the other hand, is more organic. One is less aware of the whys and wherefores of the music, and more aware of how it fits together. These comments should not be taken as mutually exclusive; the Bryston also pulls everything together, and the ARC also presents gobs of musically relevant information. The difference is a matter of subtle emphasis.
The biggest sonic difference between these two DACs is heard only when comparing their USB inputs. Neither of them surmounts USB’s inherent limitations, and neither supports high sampling rates or deep bit-depths. However, the ARC’s USB input is clearly superior to the Bryston’s, which sounds dull and cloaked. With the help of a bright-leaning USB cable to compensate, such as the Synergistics Tricon, the Bryston achieves a satisfactory result—which is about as good as USB gets. But the ARC needs no such assistance, since its USB input is neutral from the get-go. Indeed, using the Synergistics cable with the DAC7 places much more emphasis on USB’s high-frequency foibles than anyone should be forced to endure.