Danish Audio Design DAC 05 and DAC 10 Review 
Home Theater Accessories Acoustics, EQ & Room Tuning
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Wednesday, 18 May 2011

My off-an-on trek through the world of Scandinavian audio components brought me most recently to Aalborg, Denmark, and Danish Audio Design. The company, led by music lover and designer Ole Nielsen, is a bit unusual in that it focuses primarily on producing Digital-to-Analog converters. As more music lovers discover the benefits of pairing a digital player with an external DAC – improved sound quality, most importantly – the market for Digital-to-Analog converters has certainly broadened and expanded. Danish Audio offers three DACs: the entry-level DAC 05, bigger brother DAC 10 and flagship model, the DAC 20. Nielsen sent the DAC 05 and DAC 10 for audition. The DAC 05 retails for approximately $1,715, while the DAC 10 sells for around $3,180. 

Design

The DAC 05 and DAC 10 (along with the DAC 20) are handmade and built according to Nielsen’s blueprints using many custom parts, including a specially designed circuit board and different solders and tins for the analog and digital sections. Both DACs reflect the Scandinavian ethos of elegance and simplicity - there are no lights, buttons or other controls on the front panels. All the business takes place inside the chassis and via the rear-panel connections, and even there simple triumphs over complex.  “The DACs are very simple in design. I try to keep the components in the signal path to an absolute minimum,” Nielsen said. 

The DAC 05 sports one pair of RCA digital coax inputs and one pair of RCA analog outputs. Two digital devices can be connected to the DAC 05 and selected via the single switch on the DAC’s back panel. The DAC 10 is slightly larger than the 05 and comes with a separate Power Supply Unit (PSU) and Capacitor Box. The three-way connection starts with the DAC connecting to the Capacitor Box, which finally connects to the PSU. Inputs and outputs are the same as the 05. Both DACs rest on a trio of padded feet arranged in a triangular pattern. Detachable IEC connectors make it easy to use any after-market AC power cable as desired. 

If Danish Audio Design DACs have a musical personality, it comes from Nielsen and his against-the-grain ideas about what Digital-to-Analog converters (and audio components in general) should and shouldn’t do.  “… the DACs play the way [how] I see music should be played. I have listened to a lot of concerts and try to have my DACs play [music] the same way. While many DAC designers crusade to defeat digital jitter, Nielsen takes a different view: “My opinion on jitter is that a little jitter is good for the music… I am also against asynchronous up-sampling. I have tried Analog Devices, Burr Brown, NPC and Crystal up-sampling circuits. I think they all give wrong timing in the music.  At first the music sounds very smooth and polite, but after some hours of listening you get the feeling that something is wrong. I'm using a HTPC computer for playback, and it is very easy for me to change sample rate and bit depth. And I always end up using 44.1kHz and 16-bit for the most correct playback. Yes it sounds smother and more polite using 192kHz and 24-bit, but I am listening to music and not to specification. I hate to listen to a mega-dollar setup with silver cables, ceramic speakers, Class D amplifiers. After just a few minutes of listening, you feel your ears trying to move to the back of your head.” 

Although Danish Audio DACs don’t up-sample, they do accept sample rates up to 24-bit/192kHz, so if you have high-res files stored on a computer system they can still be played and enjoyed with no fidelity loss. Nielsen, however, would rather potential customers look past the specs and focus on how his components sound. He told me, “I make DACs that make the small hair in the back of your neck stand up and make your feet stomp on the floor. I don't make DACs that are 100% correct; I make DACs that give you pleasure listening to music, which I feel is the most important thing.”



Listening

I spent several weeks with the DAC 05 and 10, which allowed me ample time to hear each in the same system and configuration. I connected first the DAC 05 – and subsequently 10 - to Emotiva’s ERC-1 CD player, to compare the two DACs. The units I received were built just weeks before they arrived at my door, so Nielsen advised giving them a couple weeks burn-in before critical listening. 
My first impression of the DAC 05 working with the ERC-1 was that the music had a slightly richer tonal palette and the crisp edges were softened but not dulled. The ERC-1 is a very detailed player, but can sound a bit dry with some recordings – even powered by tube gear. I can’t say I was blown out of the water by what I first heard, but I soon would be. 

One of my “Ah-hah” moments with the DAC 05 came on a Saturday morning when my wife put Blondie’s The Best Of Blondie CD into the player. I had always appreciated Blondie’s music but would not consider myself a fan of the band. Yet as songs including “Heart Of Glass” and “The Tide As High” flowed from the speakers I couldn’t deny how engaging and full the music sounded. The music was airy, clean and dynamic, and revealed how good this Redbook CDs can sound. I would compare it to a cross of a very good vinyl recording and SACD. If it didn’t make the hairs on my neck stand up, it certainly got my attention. The musical and textural detail was outstanding. And it was the musical texture of this and many other recordings that I came to appreciate more and more listening with the DAC 05 in place. Revisiting Cheap Trick’s terrific 2006 recording, Rockford, what struck me was the depth of the arrangements of tunes such as “If It Takes A Lifetime” and how much fun it is hearing all the musical kibbles and bits with the polish of a main course. 

I’ve said before that one characteristic of a really good component is that it makes you want to keep listening to music. A fine component can also reveal the magic in a song that you may never have truly appreciated before. That happened several times for me with the DAC 10. Irish blues-rocker Rory Gallagher is one of my favorite guitarists and I’ve heard most of his recordings dozens of times. I have my shortlist of what I consider Gallagher’s top tunes, but that list grew ever longer as I listened again with the DAC 10 in the audio chain. One song that jumped out at me was “Continental Op,” from the 1988 Defender album. Beyond the joy of hearing this master play his Fender Strat, I heard Gallagher’s singing in a new light. His voice had a confidence and muscularity that made the recording sound almost like a remix – like a live remix. Gallagher’s star shone brightest on the concert stage, and it’s hard to imagine a “definitive” performance of “Continental Op” coming from anywhere but a live venue; here was a sonic argument for the studio version to be strongly considered for such an accolade. And those rich tonal colors flourished no matter the music I played. 

What distinguishes the 05 and 10? For me, the DAC 10 has a bigger, broader and more analog-like sound. It also has better dynamics and separation of instruments and voices. Compared to another Scandinavian-designed DAC that I reviewed earlier here on AVRev.com - Hegel Music’s HD10  - I would describe the Danish Audio DACs as slightly warmer sounding, with the 10 providing overall better dimensionality and larger soundstage. The DAC 05 and HD10 were more comparable and similar in sound. Where the Hegel – and other DACs – may have the upper hand is simply the versatility afforded by additional digital inputs such as USB and Optical, and if you want up-sampling options. Otherwise…

Danish Audio Design DAC 05

Final Thoughts

The DAC 05 and DAC 10 are straightforward and effective models that would work well in most mid- to upper-end systems and for those looking for a “set-it-and-forget” component. The DAC 05 is a plucky music maker that captures the intensity and drive of recordings while exposing their nuances in an impressively large soundstage. The DAC 10 can take your music collection to new places. Its big, dynamic, emotionally satisfying sound creates a vivid musical picture of the pieces and piece as a whole. Either way, either DAC, Nielsen’s approach is refreshing in an audiophile world that often takes itself too seriously and puts the machine ahead of the music. We should all remember that it’s about music, not technology. Right?
 

System Setup


Danish Audio Design DAC 05 and DAC 10
Grant Fidelity A-348 Integrated Tube Amplifier
Yamaha DV-S5770 DVD-Audio/Video/SACD Player
Emotiva Audio ERC-1 CD player
Better Cables Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables (3 meter/bananas) 
Better Cables Silver Serpent Anniversary Edition Interconnects (1 meter pair)
Snell Acoustics Type K loudspeakers
Plateau STS-30 Speaker Stands

Manufacturer Website


www.danishaudiodesign.com






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