Bryston BDA-1 DAC Review 
Home Theater Accessories Acoustics, EQ & Room Tuning
Written by Andre Marc   
Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Canadian company Bryston is one of the mainstays of pro and high end audio. I have previously reviewed their entry level power amp and preamp combo and their excellent BCD-1 CD player. Bryston gear is known as being exceptionally well built, clean sounding, and reliable. The company, with the BCD-1, made their first foray into digital, and several years ago, introduced the much raved about BDA-1 DAC. I have been itching to get a review sample fo the BDA-1 for some time now. Micah Sheveloff, Bryston’s long time PR rep was kind enough to send one my way. The timing was perfect, as I had several digital sources on hand to evaluate, and I just ordered several brand new digital cables.

Recently I have done several “budget” DAC reviews, that is, those costing less than $1000. I found both the Arcam rDAC and the Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 to be wonderful performers that punched above their weight class. But certainly, as you move up the ladder you get more sophisticated products with more and higher quality inputs, linear power supplies, and features like defeatable upsampling, and even remote controls.

The Bryston BDA-1, priced at $2195, is one such unit that features high quality linear power supplies for digital and analog, eight digital inputs, single ended and XLR analog outputs,  a digital output, a detachable IEC power cord, and integer based (“synchronous”) defeatable upsampling.  The digital inputs offered are two optical, four coaxial with two RCA and two BNC jacks, an AES/EBU input, and finally a USB input. The build quality and front panel panel layout are superb, typical of what I have seen from Bryston. There is also an optional remote control.

On the inside, the BDA-1 features dual 192K/24 Bit Crystal CS-4398 DAC chips. The digital inputs are transformer coupled, excluding the USB, and the unit’s firmware is upgradeable. The BDA-1 handles sampling frequencies up to 192 Khz on all inputs except for USB. There is an optional upsampling feature that takes multiples of 44.1 (upsampled to 176.4), as well as multiples of 32 Khz (upsampled to 192 Khz).  Many believe this type of integer upsampling is preferred because the processing is simpler and more accurate. If upsampling to 176.4, the the LED indicator lights an amber color, and if upsampling to 192, the LED lights green. Having this optional feature is very desirable, as most DAC units that feature upsampling, especially at lower price points lock you in to a predetermined upsample rate.  Incidentally, Bryston says the upsampling feature optimizes DAC performance.

 Bryston BDA-1 DAC

Set up and Listening:

Setting up the BDA-1 was a snap. During the review period, I also received a set of digital cables from DH Labs, including an optical, a coaxial RCA,  and a coaxial BNC. I ran the BNC from my Naim CD5 XS CD player into the BDA-1, then both the coax RCA and optical cables from my Squeezebox Touch.  Naim is one of the few companies out there that offer CD player with BNC outputs. Many with technical backgrounds believe BNC is one of the better digital connections due to its wide bandwidth, low noise, and true 75 Ohm performance. Using the Naim as a transport with the BDA-1 was very interesting.  I found the analog output of the Naim and the Bryston more similar than different.  

With upsampling engaged, it was a different story. Upsampled to 176.4 Redbook CD's sonic images seemed to leap out of the speakers.  Bass seemed deeper and richer. There seem to be details that emerged from recordings that were pushed to the forefront that were previously buried in the background. What was driving me crazy is that even at the conclusion of the review period I could not decide if upsampling was providing a fuller listening experience, or an artificial sheen. Ultimately I was leaning toward the former, as I semi concluded the Byrston’s upsampling scheme was doing something desirable musically.

With upsampling engaged, the BDA-1 created an additional dimension on CD playback, but as I said, it took me some time to decide it was a natural improvement.  When it was off, I missed the additional soundstage width and depth.  I decided to leave it engaged 90% of the time.  Once I settled in, listening to the BDA-1 was an absolute pleasure.  There was a seamless coherence throughout the frequency spectrum, and not even a hint of digital glare. This was clearly a world class digital component. 


I next used the BDA-1 with the Squeezebox Touch.  I switched between optical and coaxial RCA cables by selecting the corresponding input on the front panel and had a hard time picking a winner. Musically, I ended up with the same observations as above. With FLACs ripped from CDs (and high resolution downloads streaming via Ethernet) and played back via hard drive directly attached to the Touch, the results were stellar. Superb detail. coherency, and a truly balanced presentation. Listening to the North African band, Tinariwen, a group of nomads from Saharan Mali, was a hair raising experience. With percolating rhythms, Hendrix influenced guitar stabs, and songs sung in the Tuareg language, this music is complex call and response that can trip up any component lacking the goods. Not so here, the BDA-1 unwrapped this exotic stew without raising an eyebrow. I had just seen Tinariwen live, a great musical experience if there ever was one, and I was pretty astonished at how my system was able to capture the tonality of their voices, instruments, and overall vibe so accurately.

I also cued up the 96 Khz 24 bit downloads of Paul McCartney’s Band On The Run, Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Paper Airplanes,  and the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz For Debby. The high resolution material shined through the BDA-1 with shimmering highs, liquid mids, and in your chest bass. I plan on accumulating a larger library of higher resolution material, funds permitting, as in many cases there is huge payoff, and an improvement over the corresponding CD. Although in some instances, the margin of improvement is surprisingly small. This has everything to do with production choices and recording quality rather than playback equipment or formats. Higher resolution material also seems to make more of a difference in minimally miked, acoustic based music, rather than in rock or pop, in my personal opinion. I base this on various hi-rez classical downloads where the additional spatial information was very impressive.

Bryston BDA-1 DAC

Conclusion:

I can honestly say the Bryston BDA-1 DAC is the best sounding digital component that I have had in my system.  There is simply no area sonically I can find fault with. Maybe I could if I stacked it against units costing well into the high four figures, but that is going down the wrong path. Since a DAC has no moving parts, and all manufacturers are generally selecting from the same pool of chip sets, in my opinion there the most diminishing returns in this product category. That may be one reason there are more “budget” DAC units on the market then in any other component category, not including speakers. The Bryson BDA-1 sits exactly where my budget would be if shopping for a new DAC.  I found the number and variety of inputs incredibly useful and convenient.  The defeatable upsampling option was very enjoyable to experiment with, and as mentioned above, I left it engaged most of the time.  

You will notice there is one obvious omission from this review, and that is the USB input on the BDA-1. I feel there are far better uses for the BDA-1, and that a computer as a direct source is not my cup of tea.  If one were determined to use a computer with playback software, outputting audio via USB, there are several USB only DAC units on the market. I prefer to stream music from a computer, or a NAS type device, or direct file playback. The USB input on the BDA-1 is limited to 48Khz & 16 bit resolution to boot. Bryston essentially agrees with me about USB and has not poured too many resources into this type of connection. In any case the BDA-1 can be used with any number of  excellent USB/SPDIF interfaces on the market if a computer is your preferred direct source.

In conclusion, The BDA-1 offered up detailed, flawless imaging, that allowed all the music I played to flow in a superbly organic way. As a matter of fact, the BDA-1 may be the most neutral source component of I have heard.  Are their less expensive competitors? Sure. But forget about multiple digital inputs, separate digital and analog power supplies, and defeatable, synchronous upsampling. You can also forget about a 5 year warranty, and build quality that would shame some well-reviewed DAC units out there.

I will be doing a follow up on the BDA-1 when I review the Bryston BDP-1 digital file player. The units are made to be used together, connected via BNC.  I very much look forward to this coupling. In the meantime, I can highly recommend the BDA-1 based on sonics, flexibility, and overall quality of build. The BDA-1 is definitely a keeper in my book.


Specifications

Bryston BDA-1 DAC:

  • Description: Digital-to-analog converter with remote control of digital input and volume.
  • Digital inputs: USB 1.1, four S/PDIF electrical (RCA, BNC); two S/PDIF optical (TosLink), AES/EBU (XLR).
  • Digital input sample rates accepted: 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz (transformer-coupled S/PDIF, AES/EBU); 32–48kHz, USB. 
  • Input word lengths accepted: 16–24-bit, S/PDIF and AES/EBU; 16-bit, USB. Digital output: S/PDIF bypass loop output via RCA jacks
  • Dimensions: 17" (432mm) or 19" (483mm) with rack ears W by 2.75" (44mm) H by 11.25" (286mm) D. Shipping weight: 18 lbs (8.2kg).
  • Finishes: Black, silver.
  • Price: $2195

Manufacturer:

Bryston Ltd.
PO Box 2170
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 6X7
Canada.
Tel: (800) 632-8217

Reviewer System 1


Cd Player: Naim CD5 XS with Flatcap 2X,
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch
Preamp: Audio Research SP16
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4
Cables: DH Labs Revelation (IC), Kimber KCTG (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC),  Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Element Cable Element Cord, (AC)  Shunyata Venom (AC) Pangea AC-9 (AC) Audience powerChord e.(AC)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Sound Anchors stands,  Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner, Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Salamander rack

Reviewer System 2


Cd Player: Marantz 5003
Music Server: Squeezebox 3
DAC: CIA VDA-2 with VAC-1 Power Supply
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Preamp: Belles Soloist 3
Amplifier: Belles Soloist 5, Revox A722
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3
Cables: Kimber/QED/Transparant/Shunyata(AC)/PS Audio, Pangea Audio (AC), RS Cables, Element Cable






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