DACs, or Digital Analogue Convertors, are really coming in to their own now with more-and-more audiophiles and music lovers acknowledging that their digital libraries can, and should, sound just as good as their beloved vinyl. Brit Hi-Fi stalwart, Arcam, have kindly loaned me one of their irDAC units to see how it performs.
Currently I am running a Musical Fidelity V90 DAC as I tried to miniaturise my Hi-Fi. The Arcam irDAC costs almost twice that of the mini MF but will that be as noticeable to my ears as to my wallet?
Arcam irDAC design
The irDAC follows the default rectangular shape as most Hi-Fi gear and matches the previous Arcam rDAC’s height but is slightly wider and deeper. I like the how the input indicators hook over the front edge and that they flick from red to green when they have a signal passing through that particular channel.
Within the black rubber-feel solid aluminium anti-vibration case Arcam has fitted the irDAC with kit from their £2,000 FMJ D33.
The other upgrade is hinted by the “i” in irDAC – infrared. Basically, you get a remote control in the box, unlike its i-less predecessor. The small and simple remote lets you change inputs and, depending on compatibility, control the playback and volume of connected portables and media-playing software from the comfort of your favourite chair.
Arcam irDAC connections
The irDAC is well connected thanks to its twin optical and twin coaxial digital inputs that will happily slurp up signals from streamers, CD players, TVs, games consoles and so on.
You also get a Type-B asynchronous USB input which means that the irDAC controls the data flow and not the computer sound source which should result in better sound.
There’s a switch on the back of the device which changes the USB connection between Class I and Class II status (Class II is for feeding the Arcam a 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution stream).
There’s also a USB Type-A connection. This lets you connect a portable iDevice, as advertised on the front of the unit, and lets the Arcam convert the digital signal to analogue. It also charges your portable Apple whilst it’s hooked up.
The irDAC is mains powered, but can also be juiced-up by the separate power supplies found in some of Arcam’s other products, such as the A19 stereo amp. Arcam claims that this will further improve sound quality.
It’s always nice to see cables bundled in with things and Arcam have included optical digital and USB-cables so, should have forgotten to get some, at least you can get up and running using the free cables. There’s also a power cable with plug adapters in the box.
Arcam irDAC sound quality
I was expecting a little bit of a difference between the V90 DAC and the irDAC given the £200 gap – but there’s not much difference in the size so how could there be much difference in performance?
As soon as I had the irDAC hooked up to my system (Oppo disc spinner, Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro laptop (Spotify, FLAC, MP3), Musical Fidelity M6si amp, Tannoy Mercury V1i speakers) and hit play on one of the tracks from my laptop, I could really hear the difference.
Playing The Ballad of The Birds of Satan by The Birds of Satan (who else?) the detail of the track and the spread between the drums, guitar tracks and vocals made me want to hear more.
Changing the vibe a little and selecting a CD-quality file of Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass, the irDAC really brings out the depth of the organ and the atmospheric Monk-like chanting. It is equally adept at picking out the plaintive piano and vocals of Ed Harcourt’s Late Night Partner with the swirling strings weaving in and out of the piece.
Those that know me will also know that it’s not all easy listening and atmospherics with my music collection and shoving Dimera by Lamb of God through the Arcam irDAC gave the track real weight as the guitars chugged along with Randy Blythe’s vocals. Tracks like this could just end up being a muddy mess due to the narrow frequency range but all was good through the USB B connection. Everything came pounding through tightly with the cymbals widening the spectrum with a precise sharpness.
Don’t be surprised to find your early ripped, lower bitrate material toe-curlingly embarrassed by the irDAC though, just as they are when attempting to play them through really good headphones.
It is really advisable to keep to tracks from the likes of Spotify Premium or Tidal and 24/192kHz files. That way the irDAC will be only too happy to serve you audio with sparkling detail without underlining any flaws.
Arcam irDAC review conclusion
The rather unassuming exterior and size of the Arcam irDAC hides some quite potent tech which manages to squirt out some high quality, high fidelity sounds.
I didn’t honestly think that there could be much to choose between DACs, especially within a similar price range. I certainly wasn’t expecting a huge difference between the MF and Arcam ones but it is quite a gulf. Perhaps it’s an unfair fight and one of MF’s beefier offerings, such as the M1DAC, would most likely give the irDAC a better run for its money but I can only deal with what I have in front of me.
Most importantly, I love how it performs and sounds.
The Arcam irDAC has set the DAC bar pretty high for me now thanks to its ‘live’ and involving reproduction and will be the one which I rate all further DACs against.
Arcam irDAC UK price
The Arcam irDAC is available now and will cost you £399 from Amazon.co.uk.
Arcam irDAC Tech Specs
DAC: TI PCM1796
Inputs: USB, SPDIF, optical, iPod
Frequency response: 10Hz — 20kHz, ±0.1dB
Total Harmonic Distortion: + Noise 0.002%
Signal-to-noise ratio (A –Weighted): 112dB (24-bit)
Line output level: 2.2Vrms
Supported sample rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 192kHz
Supported bit depths: 16-bit, 24-bit
Power requirements: 7W max
Dimensions: (wxdxh, mm) 190 x 120 x 44
Vote – make GadgetyNews an award winner!
Please take a few seconds to vote for GadgetyNews by clicking the picture below – there’s no sign up or fee