Published on September 9th, 2011 | by Greg0
NuForce uDAC2: The Tiniest USB DAC Yet?
Little isn’t always better. Especially when it comes to audio gear- bigger bass requires bigger speakers, and this is true regardless of whether you’re trying to fill a theater or simply pump music through a decent set of headphones. There are exceptions of course, but even with MP3 files, a higher bitrate is a larger file and generally better audio quality. Every rule has a limit- you won’t notice much of an improvement beyond 192kpbs, and even the best headphone drivers don’t need to be much larger to capably handle sound. But tiny is usually anathema to audio- the iPod notwithstanding.
But it’s precisely into this digital world that the NuForce uDAC2 leaps, merely a couple of inches on each side and weighing just a few ounces. And though we’ve seen several other similar products before- and will be checking out more in the days to come- the uDAC2 has sheer portability on it’s side. The purpose of a USB DACs is simple- they are digital audio convertors that connect to your desktop or laptop and process the audio instead of relying on the audio converter inside your computer. This has a few benefits, namely clearer and richer audio with less noise, hissing, and popping. This isn’t as specialized a piece of gear as the VRM box for virtual reference monitoring, and it also isn’t a serious amp (consider the TTVJ box that we’ve tried for that). But it capably handles your digital files, with little setup. Simply plug in the USB cord to your PC or Mac, and connect a pair of headphones. No external power is required.
Of course, this type of box is aimed at audiophiles- perhaps those who have spent a couple of hundred dollars on good headphones, but not the folks who are analog and tube aficionados. You won’t hear much improvement if you’re using a cheap pair of headphones or earbuds- certainly sounds will be a bit broader and more distinct, and we heard less distortion at high and low volumes, but the real test was when using high-quality lossless files and a good pair of headphones (like our trusty Grados). Listening to highly-produced tracks from Four Tet provided excellent reference- the instrumentation is sharp and fast and easy to get washed out but the uDAC2 handled it well. Suffice to say, this will definitely improve your listening experience, if your other gear is up to par.
We like that the unit includes an RCA and coaxial S/PDIF out, though we didn’t end up trying it. And we definitely appreciated the build quality- components felt sturdy and the casing was sleek. Available in several colors, including blue, black, red, and silver, we strongly recommend that audiophiles take a look. It blows away your onboard sound card, and though it might slide around your desk a bit, it’s handy at parties and even at the office. The uDAC2 won’t smooth over defects in your music- it can accentuate them in fact. But if you need a fairly capable and ultra-portable DAC, look no further. $129, available online. Also, NuForce makes a variety of other products, including some earphones that we’ve tried out in the past.