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Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 DAC Review Print E-mail
Wednesday, 29 September 2010
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Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 DAC Review

ImageChannel Islands Audio (CIA), has been around for a number of years producing high value, versatile audio components and accessories. Their Class D switching amplifiers have gotten rave reviews for their small footprint, efficiency, and sound quality. CIA also makes passive preamps, power filters, and upgrades to other manufactures products, like the Logitech Squeezebox and Wadia iTransport (and Squeezebox Duet) power supplies, which by all accounts, dramatically improve the performance of both.

CIA also makes a DAC with the same design principles as many of their other products, simplicity, excellent build quality, and all made in the U.S.A. Dusty Vawter, head honcho at CIA, has a long history in high end audio, and is very customer oriented. CIA sells its products both direct from the factory, and through Music Direct, the well known audiophile e-tailer.

The VDA-2, which sells for $599, is small, and comes stock with a decent quality wall wart power supply. This review of the VDA-2 is reflects its performance with the optional outboard VAC-1 power supply, which sells for $179. The VAC-1 shares the same dimensions as the VDA-2, as well as the same brushed aluminum faceplate.  The VAC-1 has an IEC connector so you can use the power cord of your choice, if you decide not to use the stock cord. The units connect together via an umbilical cord.

Rear Ports

The VDA-2 DAC was designed with the notion that simpler is better. According to CIA, “traditional DAC designs use brick-wall digital filters, usually followed by more analog filtering to reduce sampling noise, but cause signal degradation in the process. Another approach has been to use no filtering at all, but this adds noise to the analog signal. Both of these designs have their strengths and weaknesses, but neither tends to be a good trade-off. Our design uses only a mild "slow roll-off" digital filter and first order analog filter to tame the sampling noise. This architecture has reduced filtering artifacts compared to brick-wall types, and lower sampling noise than filterless types, resulting in a more "analog" sound. “

The VDA-2 accepts TOSlink and Coaxial S/PDIF digital inputs. The signal is then fed to the CS8416 24 bit/192k low jitter input receiver, then to the Burr Brown PCM1794 balanced/current output DAC. According to CIA,  “our unique output stage is a fully discrete/zero feedback design and uses only a single transistor per output to insure the purity of the audio signal. Circuit board is high quality gold-plated 2 oz. copper with lead-free silver solder construction. “

The output arrangement allows for 2 pair of single-ended connections, for connection to two separate systems or recording devices, or a single pair of balanced outputs (with the optional VRX•1 cable pair). The external 14vAC power wal wart supply is included as a standard accessory.

Set Up and Listening:

My networked music system consists of a Mac Mini with the Snow Leopard operating system using the Logitech Squeeze Server software, accessing loss less FLAC files from three external Western Digital hard drives.  The network is managed by a Linksys router and switches. Everything is hard wired. The last step is an Ethernet cable that connects to the Squeezebox itself. The Squeezebox interface is controlled via a web browser, or via the supplied remote control, which I use almost exclusively.

Front View of the DAC
I installed the VDA-2 and the VAC-1 power supply then connected it to my Squeezebox via a Transparent Audio optical digital cable and a QED coaxial digital cable. I used a Pangea AC-9 power cord as well as a Shunyata Venom. The VDA-2 locked into the incoming signal immediately. I also used a pair of RS Silver interconnects terminated with Eichmann Silver Bullet Plugs for the outgoing analog signal to my preamp. The improvement over the analog outputs of the Squeezebox was nothing less than earth shattering. I mean not even close. It was like someone removed several blankets from the speakers. The terabyets of live soundboard and FM recordings on my hard drives sounded the best I have heard yet. The presentation was detailed, smooth, natural, and harmonically rich.

Working from memory, comparing the VDA-2 to the Benchmark DAC1 HDR, I think the CIA had a bit more flesh on the bone, and a more analog sound, where as the Benchmark presented things a few rows back, but maybe with the slightest bit more focus. I don't know which was more accurate, but both are superbly engineered and snag free products, so it will be a matter of taste. I was leaning towards the CIA.

I also fed the VDA-2 a signal from my Marantz 5003 CD player and it was a tougher call. The 5003 uses an excellent internal DAC chip and it has trickle down technology from the much more expensive Marantz players in the line. The signal fed through the CIA had a bit more midrange clarity, but I am talking just a bit more.


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