February 15, 2010
Devilsound DAC Version 2.1 USB Digital-to-Analog
The standalone digital-to-analog converter -- a product
genre that has dwindled to relative niche status over the last decade -- has recently come
roaring back to life for one reason: the emergence of computer-based audio. DACs are now hot.
For many years, particularly through the 1980s and early
90s, the separate DAC was a staple of high-end-audio systems. Companies like Mark
Levinson and Krell produced statement-level DACs that held pride of place in the very best
rigs of the day. But over time, beginning in the late 90s, it was models comprising
a disc transport and DAC in a single box that overtook the CD-player market. There were
many reasons for this, not least of which were convenience and cost: one box is cheaper to
make, buy, and find room for on a rack than two boxes of the same size.
Then there was sound quality. Designers and audiophiles
learned of something called jitter -- timing-related errors generated in the transmission
of a digital datastream -- and that the greater the jitter, the worse the sound. It was
generally agreed -- by the engineers who designed them and the users who listened to them
-- that, all else being equal, one-box players had the potential of producing less jitter
and thus better sound. One-box players became the choice of most CD-playing audiophiles --
and, had the Compact Disc retained its dominance over digital audio, the hegemony of the
one-box player, too, might have remained unchanged.
Enter the computer. Exit the transport.
Now that the computer, commonly termed a music server,
is the primary signal source for many audiophiles, the DAC has reemerged as perhaps the
hottest product category in todays audiophile market, and the prices of standalone
DACs are now often more reasonable than one might expect. For instance, Ayre
Acoustics QB-9 DAC, which many regard as representing the state of the art of the
USB DAC, costs a relatively affordable $2500. The Weiss Minerva FireWire DAC, another
contender for state-of-the-art status intended primarily for computer applications, is
$4500. Considering the level of performance these products offer, these arent
horrendous prices. By comparison, Mark Levinsons No.30.6 and Krells Reference
64 both cost over $10,000.
But if $2500 to $4500 is what you can now expect to pay to
get top-shelf digital performance from your computer, what should you expect to pay
for merely very good performance? Many DACs are now available for anywhere
from $99 to $999, and many of these have found favor among audiophiles who have realized
that a computer can be a cost-effective front-end source component for a great two-channel
audio system. The subject of this review, the Devilsound DAC ($399 USD), is such a
It doesnt look like a DAC . . .
The Devilsound looks a bit different from the usual DAC,
but in this instance the casework and physical layout arent just novelties but
cost-saving features that make that $399 price even better than it at first seems. The DAC
itself is housed in a small aluminum case that, in terms of placement, is a complete
nonissue. In fact, its easier to think of the Devilsound DAC as a set of cables that
just happens to include a built-in DAC. Simply run this cable with the bulge in the middle
from computer to preamp, and let the Devilsound DAC hang out wherever it ends up hanging
out. Your computer will immediately recognize the Devilsound as an audio device, so
theres no need for additional drivers; this is very much a plug-and-play device.
The Devilsound DAC includes two sets of integral cables: a
USB cable to receive your computers digital signal transmission on one end, and a
pair of RCA cables to feed an analog signal to your preamp at the other end. If a decent
USB cable costs you around $20 and a good pair of interconnects about $100, then the
actual cost of the Devilsound DAC itself is closer to $275 -- about as "budget"
as it gets for a legitimate, audiophile-approved front-end component.
The Devilsound DAC is a
16-bit device that can accommodate sample rates of 32, 44.1, and 48kHz. It doesnt
oversample, and uses as its USB input receiver a Burr-Brown PCM2706 chip -- which,
according to the Devilsound website, can recover the digital signal from a USB connection
with very little jitter. The digital signal is then sent to an Analog Devices 1851RZ-J
chip for conversion to analog. Although the Devilsound DAC derives its power from the
computers USB port, a DC-to-DC converter regenerates incoming power to reportedly
filter out any switching noise and provide the DAC with stable, regulated power. The
DC-coupled output stage uses whats claimed to be a high-quality op-amp, obviating
the need for coupling capacitors.
Those wanting to delve deeper into the Devilsounds
technical elements can read the complete design brief on the companys website. All Ill say
here is that its clear to me that, though this tiny component has very little wow
factor at first glance, it appears to have been designed with sound quality as the No.1
I connected the Devilsound DAC to the USB output of my
Apple MacBook laptop, and its RCA plugs to either a Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8 or Boulder
Amplifiers 1010 preamplifier. The power amplifiers were either Classé Omega Omicron Monos
or a Boulder 2060 stereo amplifier. Cabling and power conditioning was the latest from
Shunyata Research: Aurora-IC interconnects, Aurora-SP speaker cables, Hydra V-Ray II power
conditioner; and Anaconda Helix Alpha/VX, Python Helix Alpha/VX, and Taipan Helix Alpha/VX
power cords. Speakers were the Rockport Technologies Arrakis.
The big news is that I found the Devilsound DAC to be, for
all intents and purposes, tonally neutral -- I heard no tonal variations that would lead
me to conclude that it was coloring the sound in any way. Voices, male and female, sounded
as voices should: clear, textured, and nuanced -- at least when theyd been recorded
that way in the first place. For example, the singer Eden Atwood, on tracks from her 2004
album This Is Always: Ballad Session (CD, Groove Note 1022), sounded properly
scaled -- the size a real person should be within a nicely dimensioned soundstage -- and
detailed enough that I could clearly hear her subtle inflections. The accompanying piano
on "Day by Day" was tonally neutral throughout its frequency range, full-sized
within the soundstage, and sorted out such that it didnt mush together with
Atwoods voice. The overall sound of this track was smooth and rich, but didnt
sound at all hyperrealistic. On the contrary, it sounded inviting and relaxed --
which fits Atwoods voice and singing style just right.
I heard this same smooth, relaxed quality in "Tall
Trees in Georgia," from Eva Cassidys Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix
Street 10046). The Devilsound DAC was able to reproduce Cassidys speaking voice at
the beginning of the song with finely textured detail, while keeping ambient noises such
as tinkling glasses intact and wholly separate. The air around Cassidys physical
presence at the beginning of the track was palpable, creating a wonderful sense of space
and aliveness. Cassidys image was kept precisely dead center and, again, tonally
Perhaps most surprising for an inexpensive DAC, the
Devilsound was very good with the higher frequencies. It was able to reproduce cymbal
crashes without obscuring the detail with hash or noise, and it was never offensive, even
with recordings of only mediocre pedigree. I dont mean to imply that the highs were
perfect: The Devilsound did soften the upper frequencies just a touch, which could be a
benefit in some systems and with some recordings of lower quality. However, it wasnt
overtly soft; this softness was only in direct comparison with the much more
expensive Bel Canto DAC3VB ($2695) with VBS1 ($1495) power supply. In fact, I think
its fair to say that the Devilsound DAC fell down only in an A/B test with that far
pricier piece of gear. Even then, its shortcomings were never offensive -- it didnt
do that much wrong, it just came up short in a few areas.
For instance, the Devilsounds bass didnt have quite
the Bel Cantos heft and depth. On "Low," from Jonas Hellborgs 1991
album The Silent Life (CD, Day Eight Music 26), the Bel Canto rig lent more weight
to the bass guitar, making it more prominent, and more easily heard and felt. This
gave it a greater sense of realism. Still, through the Devilsound DAC I was able to follow
the bass line in this track with satisfying precision -- which is important, as bass
articulation is the heart of this instrumental album on which the only instrument
is the bass guitar. On the next track, "Black Market," the sound was plucky and
agile over the Devilsound, giving the listener a well-defined sense of how good Hellborg
really is. In fact, if you have a system that can play low and articulate, this album is a
must-have. Youll enjoy it through many playings, and its an excellent test of
your woofers ability to track accurately way down low.
The other area in which the Devilsound didnt quite
match the Bel Canto was propulsive drive. The more expensive DAC gave life and sparkle to
music that was, in comparisons, hard to ignore. This was easy to hear when I played tracks
with clearly recorded acoustic instruments, for instance, where the leading edges of
transients sounded more distinct and visceral through the Bel Canto.
But what the Devilsound did
do well, even in direct comparison to the Bel Canto, was to maintain a great sense of
balance and detail, particularly with vocal-rich live recordings. "North
Dakota," from Lyle Lovetts Live in Texas (CD, MCA MCAD-11964), sounded
exceptionally clear, with rich tone color, while producing a convincing approximation of
the recording venue: airy and present. Low-level ambient sounds were clearly audible
within a wide, fairly deep soundstage. Rickie Lee Jones joins Lovett on this track; the
Devilsound kept the singers nicely separated in space while delivering a softly focused
soundstage that kept me focused on the music, and not on the laser-like placement
of every single molecule.
The Devilsound DAC is perfectly capable of delivering
high-quality sound from a computer to most audio systems. Its tonally accurate, has
a satisfying degree of resolution, and reproduces musical subtleties with surprising
nuance and focus, particularly in the midrange. What it cant do -- the deepest,
weightiest bass; the most lifelike leading edges -- shouldnt really be surprises in
a component costing only $399.
But there seems little point in listing what this DAC cant
do when compared with a far more expensive model -- anyone considering buying a Devilsound
wouldnt be interested in such products anyway. What impresses me is that such an
inexpensive device can get so many things so right. And when you factor in the cost of the
included cables, well, its easy to envision the Devilsound in a system based on a
computer you already have, a pair of EgglestonWorks Dianne speakers, and a Simaudio or Bel
Canto integrated amplifier -- for about $6000, youd have quite satisfying
. . . Jeff Fritz
Devilsound DAC Version 2.1 USB Digital-to-Analog
Price: $399 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
On a Higher Note, LLC
P.O. Box 698
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693
Phone: (949) 488-3004
Fax: (949) 488-3284