Published on March 21st, 2015 | by Greg0
Arcam irDAC: A Multi-Source Audiophile’s Best Friend
Many hobbies and passions are expensive- whether you’re betting on your perfect March Madness bracket (good luck) or you enjoy fine automobiles. And while many of them can range widely in cost wine can be cheap or incredibly pricey- audio is an interesting world that everyone enjoys… but some simply enjoy more. After all, while regular listeners might be content with a pop song streamed via the internet to tinny earbuds, any audiophile will spend more on higher-resolution, even lossless files, and the equipment necessary to truly capture and recreate the music.
Today’s review is aimed at the serious aficionado, willing to spend nearly $700 on a piece of equipment that most people don’t even think about or know they need. The Arcam irDAC isn’t for the casual crowd, and really only comes into it’s own if you already have spent a fair bit on speakers and an amplifier. But for the right audience, it’s well worth the price tag, and will fit perfectly into many setups. As you probably know, a DAC is a digital-to-analog converter, necessary for taking your MP3s or FLAC files and decoding them, rendering those binary digits into analog signals that your stereo system can accommodate. We’ve seen a lot of Arcam gear before, and this British company makes some of the best. We’ve also seen a lot of DACs, and what’s most distinctive about the irDAC is it’s wide array of inputs and outputs and it’s focus on pure circuitry. It won’t drive headphones or even speakers directly, and there isn’t a built-in preamp (no volume control then). Instead you’re getting truly capable, noise-free signals- they’ve even included eight separately regulated power supplies in the unit.
The “ir” in the name is actually very simple- it stands for infrared, referring to the included remote control, a relative rarity among DACs. The remote itself isn’t amazing, but it does allow you to change between the various inputs, six in total: dual coaxial digital, two optical digital, and a pair of USB connections (one Type A, one Type B). If you’re a hardware lover, then you’ll recognize the name of the key chip- the Burr Brown 1796, one of the leading DACs in the world. Arcam definitely aimed to build the very best without compromises, handling anything you throw at it from asynchronous USB and direct iPod connection to PCs and Mac computers. They brag about jitter reduction, and if you have the gear to notice, then this little guy will certainly impress- it’s as capable as we’ve ever seen a DAC and doesn’t have too large of a footprint either. Formats supported range from 44.1kHz through 192kHz, at 16- or 24-bit, and the irDAC only draws about 7W of power at peak. It can be a bit complicated to play files at 192, but it’s nice to know the option exists (you’ll need to flip the unit’s slider switch from Class I to Class II).
Results are immediately impressive, especially if you’re coming from a direct connection to your laptop. Playing large files through your standard connection is like trying to drink from the proverbial firehose- you just lose a lot. But connect the irDAC and you’ll see a lot more detail, starting with much better rhythm and a slightly warmer, rounder tone that avoids being clinical and never gets in the way or strains your ears. Piano plinks are more delicate, and songs with a wider tonal range open up a lot, allowing you to notice individual instrumentation, breaths, and all of the finer points that can get lost without a fully-fledged DAC. Try out a track like MØ’s XXX 88 to get an idea- the layers, often compacted, sound separate and more forward and alive. Tove Lo’s song Habits offers a ton of spacey backgrounds and a sharply contrasting low end and is easy to come across as harsh- but the Arcam irDAC had no trouble, especially when we pumped it through their stellar FMJA19 amp, still our top-rated amplifier. Available for $700 online and in stores, the Arcam irDAC isn’t particularly sexy, but the things it does with music most certainly are- and if you are looking for a stellar DAC, the “end all” in the sub-$1000 category, then consider this the leader of the pack.