As with other USB and FireWire DACs I’ve reviewed I spent lots of time comparing the iTunes with Amarra, Pure Music, and AyreWave players through the DAC-2. In every case it was easy to hear the superiority of these software solutions over iTunes through the DAC-2. The three D’s—depth, definition, and dynamics—all improved. I was especially aware of this step up in quality on orchestra recordings, such as my own high-definition recordings of the Boulder Philharmonic (down-sampled from DSD to 96/24). Although the overall soundstage and image size didn’t change appreciably, the spaces between instruments were more pronounced and each instrument seemed more palpable and three-dimensional. Also all three programs preserved more of the delicacy and air in the string sections and woodwinds than iTunes could muster.
I installed the DAC-2 in my large-room system principally to see how it compared with my longtime reference Meridian 568.2 controller on two-channel digital sources. Since the Meridian 598 transport has RCA coaxial as well as Meridian’s proprietary MHR (Meridian High Resolution) connectors, I was able to do closely matched A/B comparisons. The DAC-2 and Meridian 568.2 sounded much more similar than I expected. The 568.2 was slightly darker harmonically with less upper-frequency air and shimmer. The Meridian also had less upper midrange dynamic contrast and speed, and the faintest haziness around individual instrument outlines. Soundstage size and depth through the two units was identical, yet the DAC-2 was more incisive in terms of locational cues and subtle dimensional details.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment I also placed the DAC-2 in my small-room system so I could compare it to the Lexicon MC-12 HD on two channel sources. I ran the TosLink output from an Oppo DBP-83SE to the DAC-2 and its RCA coaxial output to the Lexicon. In comparison to the DAC-2 the Lexicon sounds somewhat “grayish,” with less sense of dynamic life and contrast. Although their soundstage sizes were very similar, it was easier to locate parts and listen into the mix through the DAC-2. The Lexicon wasn’t murky, but it didn’t have quite the clarity or ease of the DAC-2. When I switched inputs so the DAC-2 got the RCA coaxial and the Lexicon got the TosLink, nothing changed; the DAC-2 was still audibly superior.
Some of the sonic differences between the Wyred 4 Sound and the Lexicon could be attributed to the fact that the Lexicon’s output was from its single-ended rather than balanced main outputs, because the DAC-2’s bypass inputs are only single-ended. Years ago, when I first installed the Lexicon in my system, I compared its single-ended RCA outputs to its balanced XLR outputs and found that balanced was clearly superior in terms of depth, dynamics, and overall musicality. So some of the “grayness” I was hearing from the Lexicon was because of the single-ended connection.
Moving the DAC-2 back to my desktop computer system I compared the DAC-2’s USB input with the performance of the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3 USB converter. Using Amarra 2.0 in its new “stand-alone” mode, where it operates without iTunes, allowed me to do relatively fast, but not instantaneous, A/B comparisons. I still had to shut down Amarra, change inputs on the DAC-2, change output devices in OS X’s sound preference panel, and then re-open and restart Amarra—a process that took me about 30 seconds when I got all the moves down pat. Given that this was not an ideal A/B setup, I still heard some subtle differences between the two front ends. The Off-Ramp had a slightly more distant perspective, with greater sense of ambience, but not quite as much immediacy. It was as if I had been moved back three or four rows in the concert hall. On the 176.4/24 high-resolution recording from MA Recordings, La Segunda, (which was played back at 88.2 by the Off-Ramp due to its 96k upper limit and at 176.4 through the DAC-2), the DAC-2 had better depth recreation and a more solid feel. Rarely have I heard a recording and playback that sounded more like a live microphone feed.
Finally it was time to compare the DAC-2 to the Weiss DAC 202, the “big dog” in my DAC stable. Since I had to physically switch the two DACs in and out of my system, I couldn’t do any matched-level A/B comparisons—all my notes are from long-term listening sessions. Where the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp seemed to render a more distant perspective than the DAC-2, the Weiss DAC 202 seemed to provide a more close-up view of the event, as if I’d moved up a couple of rows. The DAC 202 also managed to retain more spatial information, with an even greater sense of dimensionality and depth. I must stress that the level of difference was subtle, and more on the order of the differences you’d hear between two comparably-priced premium cables than between a $1500 DAC and one that costs $6500. After extensive time with both units it was clear that the DAC 202 bests the DAC-2 in all audible performance parameters, but the DAC-2 is so close to the performance to the DAC 202 that most people would be shocked to learn that there was a $5000 difference in their prices. Even more importantly, I never felt that burning desire to return to the DAC 202 while I was listening to the DAC-2, which gives you an idea of how good the DAC-2 is. For $1499 this DAC-2 is nearly a giant-killer.