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Nagra HD DAC digital converter: High-end audio at the extreme

The Audiophiliac comes away shaken and stirred from a close encounter with the Nagra HD DAC.

There's high-end, and there's extreme high-end, insanely priced audio gear that only the mega rich can afford. That's OK, sometimes just knowing it's out there, over the rainbow can be satisfying for audiophiles who like to dream.

Lucky me, I occasionally get to play with the world's best audio, and the Nagra HD DAC is one of those that keeps me up at night.

I dropped by the Audioarts NYC showroom to experience the HD DAC firsthand, and it definitely looked the part. Run your fingers over its exquisitely machined chassis and you know it's the real deal. Nagra started as a pro sound company with analog tape recorders that were hugely popular with film sound, radio and TV broadcast engineers in the 1950s; later on Nagra's digital machines were no less significant. Nagra introduced a line of consumer high-end gear in the late 1990s; the company designs and manufactures its products in Cheseaux-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland.

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The Nagra HD DAC, shown with Hifiman HE1000 headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I started listening to the HD DAC ($28,310, £17,950) with high-resolution files of Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" album. I've heard the music hundreds of times, but at Audioarts with its magnificent Zellaton Stage speakers and CH Precision A1 amplifier the music was more complete, more fully-formed and believably real than I've heard before.

As I listened I started to realize what made the HD DAC so special, it made these high-res files sound like analog tape! Bill Evans piano was closer to life size, Paul Chambers' stand up bass was more credibly realistic, and Miles Davis' horn's agility took my breath away. This 1959 album was recorded and mixed on analog tape, and with the HD DAC the "analog-ness" of the music shined through. That's never happened quite like this before, digital always sounded at least a little bit digital, here with the HD DAC there was no digital with recordings that started out as analog and carefully transferred to digital

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A Zellaton Stage speaker Steve Guttenberg/CNET

So sure, all digital converters transform digital into analog audio, but only the HD DAC makes digital really sound like analog. I also spent some time listening to high-res files of the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, and it had the same effect on me as "Kind of Blue" did, CSN's voices sounded palpably real, and I sensed the three men really listening to each other as they harmonized. That never happened with the digitized version of this album before, the HD DAC brought the music back to life like nothing else.

The HD DAC is also a headphone amplifier, so I brought a few of my best headphones to Audioarts to audition. First up, the Hifiman HE1000, and the clarity of the sound was astonishing. Again I played "Kind of Blue." The intimacy of the soundstage, and the sense of hearing the music direct from the microphones raised the hairs on the back of my neck! The music sounded like it was live, like it was happening right now as I listened.

I've never been all that happy with the sound of Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" album, but with the HD DAC the music's dense textures and complex reverberation were endlessly fascinating, I wished I could call all of my friends over to listen.

The sound from my high-impedance (600 Ohm) Beyerdynamic T-1 headphones was a let down, I've heard them sound better with other amps, but the T-1s are never as spectacular as the HE1000.

I also brought my Sennheiser IE 800 in-ear headphones, and their sound was transformed by the HD DAC. The scale of the presentation, dynamic range, resolution of fine detail, bass punch and power were all the best I've heard from the IE 800. I really love that headphone.

The HD DAC handles digital files with up to 384-kHz/24 bit, and DSD x 2 resolution. The connectivity suite covers all the bases: digital inputs include two RCA coaxials, two XLRs, one optical, one Nagra 12S, and one USB digital; analog outputs include a 6.3mm headphone jack, RCA and XLR stereo pairs. HD DAC is a bit smaller than most home components, it's 12.2 by 13.7 by 3 inches (277 by 350 by 76mm).

Some CNET writers are lucky enough to cover ultra-exotic cars like the 537-horsepower Aston Martin Lagonda Taraf , and that's cool, but I'm thrilled to occasionally luxuriate in the sound of ultra-high-end components like the Nagra HD DAC.