On the back of the DAC-2 you will find an on/off switch, two RCA coaxial S/PDIF inputs, two TosLink inputs, one AES/EBU input, one I2S2 input (via HDMI), and one USB input. The DAC-2 also has one pair of balanced XLR outputs, one pair of unbalanced RCA outputs, and one pair of “Bypass” analog inputs. The DAC-2 is capable of accepting up to a 192kHz 24-bit signal. It accomplishes this via a proprietary asynchronous USB driver. If you’re a Windows user, you’re already familiar with drivers, as it seems that virtually every hardware device requires one be installed prior to operation. Mac users may be less at ease with drivers, as most come pre-installed in the Mac OS. Being primarily a Mac user, when I first set up the DAC-2 I didn’t install the driver, with the results being dead silence. After glancing through the owners manual I discovered the driver’s CD, installed the driver, and then all was well.
Most of the time the DAC-2 remained in my near-field desktop computer audio system (see Associated Equipment for specific list of gear), but it also spent some time in my large room system. In my computer system I set up the DAC-2 so that it received a USB input from the computer, an AES/EBU input from the output of an Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3 being fed USB, a TosLink S/PDIF input from the computer, and an RCA coaxial S/PDIF input from my Oppo DBP-80 universal player
During the 60+ days I had the DAC-2 in my systems it never malfunctioned in any ergonomic or performance parameter. My only ergonomic quibble is that the acceptance angle for the remote control is rather narrow, especially in the vertical plane. Unless I lowered the remote so it was on a nearly parallel with the faceplate its commands were not acted upon. A domed rather than inset IR receiver might solve this little problem.
Front panel design always comes down to a battle between visual simplicity (fewer buttons and knobs) and the complexity of commands needed to make a three-button system work with the fewest sub-menus. The DAC-2 has only three buttons, so you need to do a double-button push to get into the settings menu. To switch from volume control mode to input control mode you must push the “power” button, which in this case doesn’t power down the DAC-2, but switches it between these two modes. Simple? Well, sort of. Just a note — if you push the power button fast, it will change between volume or input mode. If you push the button and hold it down, it will power down the unit. My problem was that it was far too easy to be in the wrong mode and instead of adjusting the volume, I’d be changing inputs. My advice—stick with the remote control.
Nestled in the set-up menu is something called “IIR bandwidth.” No, it’s not for adjusting the frequency of your remote control. Instead it means “infinite impulse response,” and it adjusts the filter’s bandwidth. You may choose 50k, 60k, or 70k. You also have a choice of two roll-off slopes, fast and slow, brightness level for the front panel display, and the option for each individual input to be either a fixed or variable output source.
Sonically the DAC-2 delivers on its promises. The overall sound has a solidity and weight that is both arresting and involving. Much of this sonic goodness stems from the DAC-2’s lack of low-level noise and digital artifacts.
A good part of the DAC-2’s apparent clarity comes from its ability to portray both lateral and dimensional information unambiguously. I never found myself wondering exactly where an instrument or sound was within the soundstage. One of my reference cuts for imaging precision is “Punchbowl” off the Punch Brothers Punch album. Since the sessions were recorded live with five musicians clustered around one main stereo pair of microphones (similar to how you would record a string quartet), it is a good test of how well a system can preserve and uncover dimensional and locational cues. The DAC-2 captures the interplay between the mandolin and fiddle as they play identical lines and how their decays trail off differently based on their physical location, reverberating off the rear and sidewalls of the recording space.
While the DAC-2’s presentation is certainly fast and incisive, it never leads with an electronic edge. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the DAC-2 is tube-like since it adds little, if any, harmonic warmth or additional depth to the soundstage. The DAC-2’s analog section presents music with a clarity and precision that will keep your left-brain fully involved. On The Band of Heathen’s tune “Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled” from their One Foot in the Ether album, the DAC-2 had no difficulty unraveling the complex multi-tracked parts for my listening pleasure.