Arcam has been one of Britain’s leading high end audio companies since the mid 70’s. They became known for great sound and super reliable amplifiers but soon branched out to make components for every application. They also became known as cutting edge designers of digital gear, with their CD, and later DVD players consistently being rated at the top of their product categories. Arcam AV receivers are considered state of the art, and one has long been on my shopping list.
The one product category that Arcam has not been involved with for some time is Digital Audio Converters. Now that has changed with the introduction of the rDAC. If timing is everything, then Arcam has nailed it, as there could not have been a better time to introduce a $479, three input, well built and attractive converter. With the movement towards computer based and networked music sources, external DACs are the hottest items around. And to even drill it down more, asynchronous USB is all the rage. This allows for high quality playback directly from a personal computer. For more on asynchronous USB, see my article here. In a nutshell, several companies have engineered the USB interface to meet audiophile standards.
Arcam has licensed proprietary technology for the rDAC’s USB input from another legendary British company, dCS, known for stellar, mega priced digital playback gear. But this is not a “USB DAC”, as there are also optical and coaxial digital inputs. I secured a review sample of the rDAC through Arcam’s US distributor, who said demand for the rDAC exceeded expectations. After spending a good month with, I can see why.
The rDAC is solidly built, compact, and features a “wall wart” switch mode power supply. There is a set of high quality analog outputs on the rear panel, an actual On/Off switch, and an input selector switch sits on the front of the top panel. There is an optional rWave USB dongle for the rDAC that allows you to stream music via a wireless connection to the unit. The rDAC can handle 24 bit audio up to 96 Khz through all inputs. Interestingly, the manual incorrectly state that the optical input can only hand 16 bit, 44.1 Khz material.
Setup and listening:
I used the rDAC in a number of settings. I first used it conjunction with the wonderful Olive 04HD music server, I reviewed here. I used a QED optical cable and was able to do A/B comparisons as well as extended comparisons by routing both the rDAC’s and the Olive’s analog outputs into my preamp. I actually preferred the Olive’s digital output routed to the rDAC overall. There was a bit more high end sparkle and a bit more bass weight through the Arcam. This was surprising as the $2500 Olive sounds quite excellent on it’s own.
The overall character of the rDAC was very detailed, yet very smooth, with lifelike imaging and soundstaging. I was really impressed with both frequency extremes. The high frequencies were delicate and silky, while the bass was articulate and punchy. To be honest, I have not heard a “budget” component sound this coherent and complete across the spectrum. I found the rDAC’s presentation highly addicting. I was getting the impression that Arcam spent a lot of time making sure this modestly priced component lived up to the Arcam name.
I next fed the BNC digital output of my Naim CD 5 XS with a DH Labs BNC to coaxial 75 ohm digital cable into the rDAC with very similar results. Even more surprising as the Naim player is over $3000, not including the external power supply. This time I had no clear preference, with both the Naim’s and Arcam’s outputs sounding nearly indistinguishable. Not bad for a $479 DAC. Based on these findings, I would say it is safe to assume that the rDAC would be a huge upgrade for a more modest transport.
I was most looking forward to trying the USB input. I ran a Belkin Gold USB cable from my Dell netbook running WIndows XP, loaded with Foobar2000 playing back FLAC files ripped from CDs, and a few downloaded high resolution files stored on an external hard drive. The sound was truly excellent here. I heard remarkable transparency, and what I would consider real high end sound. Setting up was a snap as the rDAC was recognized as an output device by the netbook, and was essentially plug and play. Bruce Springsteen’s two disc set, The Promise, filled with unreleased recordings from his Darkness on the Edge of Town era, sounded marvelous. I experienced a huge soundstage, superb tonal colors, and and tremendous dimensionality.