After the brilliant PH9 Phono stage graced my listening room I have another of the trio featured in the Foundation line up and that is the DAC9 for review. It is another piece of elegant electronics which make up for a neat and tidy 3 tier system from the legendary US manufacturer. I love the way they produce seriously no nonsense products and the DAC9 is no exception, it is put quite simply a well-made separate DAC and does not pretend to be anything else, unlike other products which have all the bells and whistles the DAC9 is relatively bare in comparison but what it lacks in the latter it makes up for in build and most importantly sound quality.
After nearly 50 years in the business of making high-end audio equipment, they have acquired a thing or two about what it takes to make something that sounds good and whilst the focus may have been on analogue the digital side is not forgotten by any means. And this shows in their latest and most technically advanced DAC9. Having heard their reference DAC in other systems it certainly made an impression and the sound was just epic in every way but so was the price tag and at last, now there is something more affordable for the more conservative audiophile.
Features and Build Quality
The DAC9 looks much the same as the LS28 preamplifier and PH9 phono stage that I recently reviewed, the design is very elegant and sleek in appearance. It inherits its good looks from the brilliant GS series of electronics which has the glass front fascia with buttons well placed under the glass display, the few buttons access the main menus and features of the DAC but the solid aluminium remote really does do everything and once connected everything can be operated from the comfort of your chair. The display is nice and bright and shows you exactly what is going on with input selection and sample rates. On the remote you also have an hour’s button which shows you how many hours are on the 6H30 tubes, this is a nice feature to have and you also get an up-sample button which can up-sample all music to 354.8Khz and 384Khz depending on the incoming signal. There is also a fast and slow filter which can be toggled by the press of a button on the remote.
The build quality is exceptional with everything hand built by Audio Research in Minnesota USA, the DAC is relatively light in weight but when you peer inside you see the well laid out board with all the main electronics hand soldered. The DAC9 is a fully balanced unit with quad DAC’s, two for each of its channels using the stereo DAC’s in a mono configuration. This lowers the noise floor and gives a higher dynamic range rather than using DAC’s in a conventional way one for each of its channels. The architecture of the DAC9 is complex in its operation and uses two separate paths, one for DSD and one for PCM data. The two 6H30 vacuum tubes are directly connected to one side of the D/A converters operating in class-A mode. The DAC9 also incorporates a 32bit digital processor for up sampling duties. Connections are catered for by a USB which connects directly to the DSD path, although it only caters for Windows users with the relevant drivers installed. MAC and Linux based systems are awaiting a software/hardware upgrade which Audio Research are working on. Other connections are the usual S/PDIF, AES/EBU, BNC or TosLink with Balanced and Single ended RCA connections for the Left and Right output channels.
At first, the USB issue seemed to be a problem for me as I am using an Aurender N100H Music Server. It is a Linux based system
and therefore the USB connection was useless to me. Speaking to Absolute Sounds they had a solution and that was to use a USB to SPDI/F converter in the form of a M2TECH box which sits just before the DAC9 and uses the SPDI/F input of the DAC9, this still meant that I could only use files which were sampled no greater than 24bit 192Khz, so DSD performance could not be evaluated.Performance and Sound Quality
For this review, I am using my ProAc K6 speakers with my McIntosh Labs MA8000 Integrated Amplifier as power. CD transport is the Cyrus CDi player and the Aurender N100H Music Server is used for music files playback. All this is connected with Transparent Cables.
As soon as I turned the DAC9 on and started listening it was clear that I was hearing something special as the musical engagement was something that I have not experienced in my system until now. It had a musical way that was so warm and inviting that the problem with the USB seemed like a million miles away and a thing of the past. This DAC was real and I was hearing music in such a way that it grabbed my attention and I just wanted to listen to all the material I could get my hands on. I was flicking through files and finding albums that I had heard so many times but it was like listening to them for the first time such was the quality that I was hearing. There seemed to be a real connection between the listener and the music that took hold and was so addictive. It seemed to extract every last drop of goodness from a recording and the detail retrieval was nothing short of spectacular. Recordings took on a solidity about them that the dimensionality of the sound stage became a more real experience.
Listening to Youn-Sun Nah – She Moves On
in 24bit 96Khz from HDtracks is as close as I was going to get to actually hearing her live in my lounge such was the rendering of her performances. The walls just fell away and the sound stage was larger than life in front of me, with the band taking their places in sync with the music. Placement of instruments was an easy task as the music was so fluid and picking each one out was so easy. Track 3 – She Moves On
has so much pace that the DAC9 keeps up with ease and takes it in its stride with a beautiful rendition, I could almost touch the acoustic guitar and the organ sounded so lush, bass had a real impact. Track 7 – Drifting
is a firm favourite and I love this cover which is originally from the brilliant Jimi Hendrix, this version sounds just stunning and through the DAC9 even more so with an exceptional performance from the lead guitarist and the rest of her band.
The guitar rift just resonates through you giving you real feel and connection to the music.
Listening to some of my favourite albums from the likes of Natalie Merchant - Natalie Merchant
2014's album with the same name really showed me how much of an improvement that the DAC9 can do for one's system, this was a standard 16bit 44.1Khz and it has never sounded this good streaming from the Aurender.
The musical timing was spot on, and as for female vocals, they have such a richness in tonal colour and texture that it is just heaven listening to her voice. Once again the solidity of the imaging was so good that you get such a wide listening space that fills the room with a magnificent sound stage, which lets you have the best seat in the house.
On to CD and this again provided wonderful results with a sound that left you wanting to hear more of your CD collection, it was not that they just sounded good but instead the DAC9 made the silver disc sound more like an excellent analogue source, a natural and organic sound which just had so much musical ability instead of just zeros and ones. I put on the beautifully recorded new album from London Grammar - Truth is a Beautiful Thing, Track 2 - Big Picture
sounded as if it was being played live such was the musical involvement felt in this track, with such solidity and refinement that on any lesser system it would have sounded like a recording instead of this massive open sound stage that was being presented through the DAC9. The lowest of the bass notes and the highest highs all sounded so right and natural with control and composure.
One of my favourite bands from the 1980's were The Police
and the CD Outlandos d'Amour
which is a remastered 2003 SACD and CD version that I have, this album contains some of their best numbers including Roxanne, So Lonely and Can't stand Losing You. I have only really ever liked listening to the DSD version of this album due to the superior quality that it offered for 2 channel replay, but with the DAC9 in my system this CD really shines like it never has before, with the 16bit 44.1Khz Redbook sounding too good to not be heard and listened to, I certainly have, replaying it multiple times and getting me back into this 1980's post punk/reggae/new wave rock band. With the Up-Sample feature of the DAC9 in use, this is my preferred listening choice for this CD as it gives a more natural and expansive soundstage for the album with this feature turned on. On past DAC's and CD players it can err on the brighter side but with the DAC9 it never becomes tiring and sounds full of life and again the emotion of the music is portrayed with the excellent drumming by Stewart Copland and Andy Summers superb guitar renditions. Sting sounds just as good with his excellent bass guitar playing and vocals. It is a nice to be able to A and B both the un-sampled and up-sampled versions as it demonstrates well the usefulness of this feature.
The list of plus points for this DAC continue and it is one of the best DAC's that I have had the pleasure of hearing in my system with it continuing to impress with the hundreds of CD's that I own. This review has taken longer than normal as I have been enjoying it so much that I have not wanted to stop hearing it.Conclusions and Final Thoughts
The DAC9 has proved to be one of the most natural sounding DAC's that I have had the pleasure of hearing in my system bar none. I am sure that the small problem with MAC and Linux based systems will be sorted shortly as I have been reassuringly told. It makes everything that you hear, sound so musically involving more so than any DAC that I have heard and am sure that this is down to the excellent implementation of electronics and especially the 6H30 vacuum tubes that Audio Research is renowned for. This is a reference product in every sense of the word and if you are in the market for a new DAC then
the DAC9 seriously needs your attention but be warned have your credit card at the ready.
Price at time of review Approx £7,500
UK Distributor Absolute Sounds
Audio Research website