Published on May 6th, 2014 | by Greg0
Arcam airDAC: Airplay Anywhere, To Your Own Audio System
Wireless systems have become a huge audio category, thanks to three main players: the many-headed spectrum of Bluetooth gear, the original-and-still-great Sonos, and Apple’s interesting alternative Airplay. If you already have an iPhone, iPad, use iTunes, and have an Apple TV, then your choice is pretty easy- stay within the walled garden and enjoy multi-room audio. Granted, it’s not typically a good portable solution, but it does have broader support than Sonos, and is generally less expensive as well. We’ve seen tons of Airplay gear- including some excellent high-end products- but until now, there wasn’t a lot of support if you already owned audiophile speakers but simply needed a way to connect them.
That’s where the Arcam airDAC comes in- it’s an extension to their rSeries, and allows you to network your existing audio setup. We’ve seen audio receivers that can connect to Airplay, and you can always add an Airport Express, but either typically compromises audio quality in various ways. The airDAC comes with not only optical SPDIF output, but digital out and RCA connections as well. Imagine a larger version of the rBlink, the Bluetooth-capable modelwe checked out previously, and you’ll have a good idea of what it looks and feels like. We again paired with their amazing amplifier, the Arcam FMJA19, and tested using every iDevice we had, along with PCs and OSX computers. A wired ethernet connection is a bit more stable than wireless, as is expected, though 802.11 b/g/n support is built-in.
As a DAC, the airDAC is a bit of an odd duck- it’s clearly intended to be more than an average Airplay device, using their irDAC as a baseline. As with all digital-to-analog converters, they work best with expensive and capable speakers or headphones- average sub-$200 models are unlikely to benefit too much from the superior signal. In other words, spend on your outputs first, and then make sure you have a decent collection of lossless or high bitrate files- then you’ll certainly hear the difference between your fairly weak device when connected directly versus an amp/DAC. The airDAC can handle 24 bit/96kHz files in UPnP mode, though Airplay itself is currently restricted to 16bit at 48kHz. There is no DSD or DXD support, though you’re unlikely to miss it (we just checked out some of our first gear that can handle it in fact). The body is clean and easy to hide among audio gear, if not pretty, and the antenna gave it better range than many other Airplay devices we’ve tried. No external controls- or even a remote- mean you’re going to be using your source to control, which is fine for most purposes.
In terms of audio quality, we did notice Airplay to be slightly inferior to UPnP. There’s ton of bass- top-notch low-end performance- but we noticed a bit of a drop-off on the higher end of the spectrum. There is plenty of detail- every instrument is crisp, clear, and vividly present, and vocals felt rich and warm. Soundstage was a bit more constrained than expected, just a bit tighter on some rock and classical albums than we’d like to see, but this is probably the single best-sounding and most-stable piece of Airplay gear we’ve seen. It’s also one of the more expensive, and remember that it’s only part of the system- you’ll need to have some pricey speakers to really make good use of it. The Arcam airDAC is an fantastic DAC to be sure, but only truly valuable to those who want Airplay support in the same single box. Our only real issue was the price- available now, for around $700, it feels a bit steep though not out of line with other audiophile DACs.