Marantz HD-DAC1 Digital-to-Analog Converter
hy do some people hate audiophiles? [Can opened, worms everywhere.] There are theories, and they usually begin with a snarky remark like, "Well, the average person wouldn't know good sound if it bit him on the ass." To which the haters respond, "See, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Elitist snob." When I ask my wife to weigh in on the question, she rolls her eyes and says, "Because normal people don't want to yak about equipment, you dweeb." Point taken, but then why aren't folks throwing tomatoes at the Pimp My Ride crowd? They're always talking about exhaust manifolds and dual overhead cams. What is it about hi-fi in particular that gets on people's nerves? I've yet to hear a definitive answer, but I think I know at least one reason we audiophiles are so misunderstood: some of us spend way too much time obsessing over our stuff and far too little time celebrating and sharing the actual magic it produces.
So, I wondered what would happen if I talked to friends about my latest review subject this way: "Hey, I just got this cool little box that makes me feel like I'm at a concert when I listen to Spotify! My phone just plugs right into the front and my iTunes library sounds amazing. Didn't get to bed until 2:00 last night. It's like high def for your ears. We'll plug in your iPad the next time you're here."
Or, instead, I could string together a long line of audiophile chestnuts like this: "You have no idea what you're missing with those crappy MP3 files you download from Amazon. This new digital audio converter has two USB inputs and even handles double-rate DSD files. I've got some Peruvian flute recordings that'll blow you away. Once I have the proper drivers and JRiver configured correctly on my computer, you can come over and check it out." Yup. And after that, I could seal the deal with a review of my various interconnects and vacuum tube collection.
Point is, we all might benefit from devoting at least as much energy describing and appreciating the deep emotional rewards of listening to recorded music as we do evaluating the technical paths necessary to capture and reproduce those elusive moments. And maybe we need to spend less time arguing over which equipment is "the best" and a bit more time praising companies that manage to make the magic of our hobby truly affordable and attainable.
When Marantz's latest digital-to-analog converter arrived at my place, I was in the middle of sampling digital wizard Ted Smith's newest beta version of the PS Audio DirectStream DAC's ever-evolving operating system. Smith is an MIT alum and former Microsoft and Google software engineer who has set a dizzying pace of component-level improvements with his innovative manipulation of field programmable gate arrays (FPGA) for the DirectStream. Every couple of months, these advances come in the form of a free operating-system download. Imagine the wild-haired professor in Back to the Future devoting his brilliance to achieving better sound and you'll understand why Smith's work is a hit with DirectStream owners and so many reviewers. I share this not to brag about the equipment I own, but to explain what a tough act this would be to follow.
Consequently, as I looked at the HD-DAC1 on a table in my living room, I chuckled. It's the size of my dad's old portable FM radio. What'd I expect for $799? So, it was a bit of a surprise when I picked up the unit and discovered it was filled with lead. Okay, not lead, but there was more to this diminutive rectangle than I'd assumed on first glance. Based upon internal pictures of the unit I've seen, every single centimeter of its approximately 10" x 10" x 4" case is chock-full of electronics, and it weighs in at 11 pounds. There might be room for an extra dime or penny somewhere, but that's about it.
As some know, Marantz has legendary hi-fi origins that began in the early to mid-1960s with Saul Marantz's landmark amplifiers. The company was eventually sold and, unfortunately, this gave way to nearly 25 years of wandering in the mid-fi wilderness (with the notable exception of one or two decent CD players). Finally, in the early 1990s, Marantz decided to take a stab at the high end again and, according to company literature, was the first audio manufacturer to utilize what are called high-definition amplification modules, or HDAMs. Unlike traditional surface-mounted operational amplifiers, these modularized op amps were smaller, more efficient and made of discreet parts. Marantz also claimed they were far less hi-fi-sounding than a number of op amps used by very reputable high-end competitors at the time.
While I liked Marantz's resistance to the hyper-detail vogue of the time, a number of reviewers still turned up their noses at Marantz's "warm sound," dismissing the products' mass-market appeal as low brow.
By the early 2000s, Marantz's newest Japanese owners refined the HDAM and introduced the HDAM-SA2 into what the company called its "luxury" line. The SA-11S1 SACD player and MA-9S1 mono amplifier finally began to get some of the stank off of Marantz's somewhat undeserved lightweight reputation. People were beginning to grow weary of dry, unemotional solid-state gear and Marantz's musical (some would say retro) sound began to raise eyebrows.
Now, in 2015, Marantz has found a way to bring its HDAM innovations to the masses. Some audiophiles will still turn up their noses at the Marantz label, but it's their loss. I happen to think Marantz is really onto something with this friendly and affordable approach to entry-level hi-fi. The HD-DAC1's Cirrus Logic CS4398 chip set enables it to handle PCM recordings up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution as well as 2.8MHz or 5.6MHz DSD files. The CS4398 has been used by a number of high-end manufacturers, including McIntosh and Esoteric. The HD-DAC1 sports asynchronous USB, S/PDIF and optical inputs as well as a front-panel USB input for mobile devices. It's a headphone amplifier, it's a preamplifier, and it will fit on a bookshelf. What's not to like? The answer depends upon whom you ask.
y time with the HD-DAC1, right out of the box with its stock power cord and cut-rate two-pronged IEC, did not begin auspiciously. It produced a sound that was pretty much in line with the expectations of Marantz's critics. Music sounded flat, uninvolving and very, very small. But I'm never impressed with cold solid-state digital gear, so I decided to put the Marantz in my buddy Steve's system for a couple of weeks of solid exercise. Steve is an architect who has used his considerable patience and design skills to construct a hot-rodded and biamped Magneplanar IIIA-based system that kills a number of mid five-figure rigs I've heard. Those who think Maggies can't produce convincing bass should hear Steve's Class D Audio monoblocks drive his IIIAs. Steve also uses a highly modified Meitner BitStream DAC and Rega Apollo R transport as his digital sources. While the DAC is not the last word in detail, Canadian modder John Wright has kept Steve's BitStream very competitive. It's a lovingly cared for classic and a very imposing sparring partner for a budget DAC.
After just two weeks and replacing the stock cord with a Shunyata Zi-Tron Z-PC10, the HD-DAC1 managed to hold its own quite well against the BitStream in my opinion. Steve, however, was not so sure. He liked the HD-DAC1's superior detail retrieval and hefty bass, but he felt it was "a bit edgy." I should note here for the record that Steve is an avid vinyl collector and frequent concert goer; consequently, he has a very low tolerance for anything that doesn't sound "real" to his well-trained ears. While Steve appreciated the HD-DAC1's price-to-performance ratio, he's not much interested in anything that fails to match his highly modified VPI HW-19 Jr. turntable. After far more than a thousand dollars in upgrades, he'll be keeping his souped-up Meitner DAC.
My friend Blackmore also had some time on his hands between gigs and offered to put the HD-DAC1 in his system and give the Marantz's headphone stage a run against his reference (see sidebar). Blackmore is always changing his system, and when I dropped by I heard the HD-DAC1 through an interesting combination of Sanders Innersound Eros electrostats and Lowther PM6A speakers. The electrostats were driven by a Sanders ESL amp and a Balanced Audio Technologies VK-60 handled the Lowthers. Strange? Yes. Blackmore has been rumored to roam the audio grave yards late at night when he's not performing his audio surgeries. I won't even tell you what bizarre combination of wires he was using to connect this particular creation. While Blackmore's work is not for the faint of heart, the sound he gets is effortless and enveloping. In Blackmore's laboratory -- er, living room -- the HD-DAC1's character was just as I heard it in Steve's system. Its midrange was lush, its bass was propulsive and the upper register was great on good recordings, but I did begin to notice that, on lesser recordings, those higher notes could be a challenge. I guess that was the edge Steve was talking about.
After hearing the Marantz DAC in two very different systems, I was eager to find out how it would fare in a more expensive and highly resolving system -- my own. My Thiel CS3.7s are known for their accuracy, the PS Audio DirectStream is famous for its analog-like presentation and the new CAT SL1 Black Path Edition preamp sets a very high bar for transparency. Whatever the flaws of the HD DAC-1 might be, I would have no trouble identifying them.
What the HD-DAC1 did was provide my wife and me with hours and hours of entertainment, and we didn't feel the least bit deprived, given its price. The HD-DAC1 swung, it rocked, and it even soothed the soul. Among the HD-DAC1's considerable sonic strengths is something that it actually refrained from doing. It did not commit what I consider to be digital's mortal sin: detail at the expense of musicality. The HD-DAC1 did not overly accentuate a certain part the music's bandwidth at the expense of another. It was balanced in tone.
The HD-DAC1 handled the phenomenal "Straight No Chaser" performance by the Thelonious Monk Quintet from the The Complete Riverside Recordings [Concord/Fantasy/Riverside 7236002] like it was custom made for the session. Could the horn section have been a slightly less honky and sounded a bit more present? Sure. But I didn't think of any of that until I played the recording later on my seven-times-as-expensive reference. The HD-DAC1 managed to preserve the spirit of the session in all of its swinging glory. For such a little box, that's no small feat.
One recording the HD-DAC1 really nailed was The Red Stick Ramblers' Right Key, Wrong Hole [Memphis International/Merless Records DOT 0211] If you ever caught this incredible band on HBO's 'Treme or saw their cameo on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations on the Travel Channel, you know that they can churn out some serious Cajun country tunes. On the track "It's Too Late," the band conjures up a sound that revives the ghosts of Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Wills and puts them together in a smokey Louisiana roadhouse. The HD-DAC1 perfectly spotlit the group's tight harmonies and the way Terry Huvall's luscious pedal-steel notes weave their way around the juke joint's barstools. I swear I could smell the Miller High Life wafting from my glass.
As impressive as the HD-DAC1's performance was with CD data, it really shone when it came to high-resolution files. In fact, I thought it nearly equaled the Rega Saturn R DAC/player's very musical performance in my system several months ago when those files were fed through the HD-DAC1's S/PDIF input. However, the Rega's USB interface was, according to my ears, less noisy and more natural-sounding. The HD-DAC1 clearly bettered the Rega in two functional areas: its interface is more user friendly and it can handle double-rate DSD files. Listening to the 24-bit/96kHz downloads of Beck's Morning Phase [Capitol] and Mavis Staples' One True Vine [Anti] left me wanting nothing. If all of my music sounded as good as those recordings did through the HD-DAC1, I might be tempted to sell my reference rig and invest the money in a better pair of speakers.
So how does this budget DAC treat DSD? Surprisingly well. But I must tell the truth here: I am no connoisseur of DSD recordings because so little of what I listen to is available in native DSD. I find the differences between non-native DSD and 24-bit/196kHz PCM files through my DirectStream to be subtle, given that the DirectStream upsamples everything to double-rate DSD anyway. That said, I found the HD-DAC1's presentation of native DSD material to be remarkably close to my DirectStream's handling of those files. When listening to the download of guitarist Ricardo Gallen's performance of Fernando Sor's Study Op.6/9 [Eudora Recordings], I was impressed by the HD-DAC1's ability to reproduce nearly all of the ambience of the recording studio as well as the the full wooden resonance of Gallen's instrument. The DirectStream had the edge when it came to reproducing more challenging instruments like the piano. Josep Colon's rendition of Mozart's Adagio in B Minor, K. 540 from his Mozart & Chopin - Dialogue album [Eudora EUDDR1402] was clean and crisp through the HD-DAC1, but the performance was clearly more present and lifelike when handled by the DirectStream.
The only sonic shortcomings I found were the HD-DAC1's restriction of size and scope of some denser music and sense of strain when reproducing complex upper-register instrumentation at higher volumes. But effortlessness, holographic soundstaging and completely natural high-frequency bloom are really the provinces of the uber DACs; it's understandable when such delights are not the strengths of a $799 piece of gear. A Mazda Miata is not a Porsche Boxster, but both are still a blast to drive.
he Marantz HD-DAC1 is more fun, pound for pound, inch for inch and dollar for dollar, than any digital music player to come my way in the past five years. The all-time honor goes to the Logitech Squeezebox Touch, which I still think is the most user-friendly and best bargain yet produced in the digital age. The HD-DAC1 is just as straightforward as the Squeezebox Touch, and it worked flawlessly while it was in my system.
Sonically, the HD-DAC1 is a midrange champ. Melody lines were musically propulsive and rhythm sections sounded right on target. While its ability to handle upper frequencies was smoother than a number of DAC's I've heard, brass or string sections could sometimes sound a bit strained with dense recordings played at higher volumes. That said, the HD-DAC1 had an authoritative -- dare I say, reference-level -- grasp of the lower registers, which provided nice punch in systems that might sound bass-shy with a leaner DAC. It handled both PCM and DSD well, and it brought some pep to my high-resolution library.
It has become customary for manufacturers to hint at "trickle-down" benefits when defending stratospheric pricing. Those promises don't always materialize, but Marantz has managed to do more than just tease. The HD-DAC1 is an excellent way for anyone to get a serious dose of audiophile thrills without breaking the bank. While setting the bar so high at a price so low is bound to make life difficult for other manufacturers, it makes it a lot easier to convince regular folks to join the audiophile fun. And if thats not good for our hobby, what is?
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