Ready to take your music's sound to the next level? Get a top notch digital converter
The Audiophiliac lends an ear to the Arcam irDAC-II, and concludes it's more than the sum of its parts.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Audiophile digital converters have come a long way, they used to just be converters, but the Arcam irDAC-II not only transforms your music's digital bits into analog signals with utmost care, it can also serve as a digital preamp, and a headphone amp. I assume most buyers will either use the Arcam irDAC-II with a set of desktop powered speakers, like my Adam Audio F5s, or go all the way and use the irDAC-II ($799, £495, AU$899) with a stereo power amp driving the speakers in their living room.
With its 7.6 by 4.9 inch (194 by 124 mm) footprint, the irDAC-II won't hog all that much space on your desktop or system rack. Connectivity runs the gamut, you get one USB, two optical, two coaxial digital inputs, AptX Bluetooth, fixed- and variable-level stereo analog RCA outputs, plus a 3.5mm headphone jack. The irDAC-II works its magic on standard and ultra high-resolution up to 24 bit/384 kHz PCM and DSD64 and DSD128 files, but alas there's no MQA decoding capabilities. The irDAC-II comes with a full-function remote control.
The sound balance is velvety rich; it's digital for those seeking at least some analog-like warmth from their digital music collection. I mostly listened to CDs, and found lots to like about the sound with the irDAC-II paired with an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player, First Watt F7 power amp, and Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3 speakers. Well-recorded high-res files sounded more three-dimensional, but average recordings such as the new Wilco album "Schmilco" heard in high- or standard-resolution were not so different. In other words, there's no guarantee the high-res version of an album will be much better than the standard version. So, the good news is the irDAC-II sounded great with standard-resolution files or CDs.
I had an original Arcam irDAC on hand for comparison, and the irDAC-II was clearly more transparent and presented a wider, deeper soundstage. In comparison with the Schiit Bifrost Multibit converter ($599, £520, AU$979) Radiohead's "A Moon Shaped Pool" album sounded more transparent, livelier, with crisper dynamics than the irDAC-II. That said, the Bifrost Multibit is just a digital converter, without even a volume control. The irDAC-II is more versatile because it has a volume control and a remote, so it can also serve as a digital preamp and headphone amplifier.
I listened to headphones first with a set of Oppo PM-3 headphones, and the sound was really nice, very clear and spacious. I've always liked the PM-3, but mated with the irDAC-II the headphone's sound was even better than I realized. I also auditioned Grado GH1 headphones with the irDAC-II, and all the things I like about Grado headphones -- hard-hitting dynamics, vivid midrange and precise bass -- were improved with the irDAC-II. Plugging in a set of headphones automatically mutes the irDAC-II's RCA analog output jacks, which is a very useful feature if you have this digital converter hooked up to an audio system with speakers.
The Arcam irDAC-II's features, compact size and sweet sound make for a compelling package.