Naim DAC-V1 Digital to Analogue Converter Review
If you thought your computer couldn't be a high-end audio source, think again!
IntroductionIn recent months we've discussed at length how the way people listen to music has fundamentally changed. As we move further into the 21st century, people are downloading music more than ever and even those that still buy CDs undoubtedly end up ripping them - yes we fall into that category. So by default, rather than due to any grand plan, most peoples' computers have become their primary source of music. This fact obviously hasn't escaped the manufacturers who have been busy creating entire ranges of products designed to help access all these music files. It has also resulted in the rebirth of the stand-alone digital-to-analogue converter or DAC, as music fans use their computer as a de facto digital transport. Whilst streaming is one option, when it comes to high resolution music files the easiest approach is to connect a DAC directly to your computer.
Enter Naim's new DAC-V1 which incorporates many of the features found in their more expensive DAC but packaged in a 'half-width' chassis and offered at a more affordable - for Naim at least - £1,250. The DAC-V1's main feature is the inclusion of a high-speed asynchronous USB DAC that can handle high resolution audio files up to an incredible 24bit/384kHz. It also includes multiple digital S/PDIF inputs, a precision volume control and a high-quality headphone amplifier. Naim have also launched the NAP100 which is a two-channel power amplifier that's designed to partner the DAC-V1 and costs a fairly reasonable £650. Which means that for less than £2,000 you can turn your computer into a seriously high-end music source. Let's find out just how good...
DesignThe DAC-V1 uses Naim's classic black powder coated chassis, incorporates the kind of solid build quality usually reserved for military hardware and weighs in at 4.3kg. The DAC-V1 uses a 'half-width' chassis which makes it easier it position on a desk next to a computer but might be difficult to match with more traditional sized audio equipment. We actually really like the dimensions of the DAC-V1, which measures 87 x 207 x 314mm, and found it very attractive, especially when combined with the matching NAP 100 two-channel power amplifier. On the left of the front facia there is a digitally controlled analogue volume control for performance and precision. On the right hand side there is a 6.3mm output jack for a single ended Class-A headphone amplifier. This headphone output is able to drive the majority of headphone types and the DAC-V1 uses a 6.3mm jack socket, rather than the smaller 3.5mm jack socket, because this provides a more reliable connection and potentially higher sound quality. In the centre there is a pin-sharp green OLED display for adjusting settings and checking incoming bit-rates.
Within the compact non-magnetic low-resonance chassis and sleeve of the DAC-V1 you'll find many of the components that make Naim's more expensive DAC so effective. There's the zero S/PDIF jitter design in common with the original Naim DAC, as well as their custom designed digital filtering with 16 times oversampling. The DAC-V1 uses the SHARC ADSP21489 DSP and RAM buffer for the digital filtering and Zero S/PDIF Jitter features, as well as a high-quality Burr Brown PCM1791A 24-bit/748kHz stereo voltage output DAC chip, in common with NDX and SuperUniti. There's also the classic discrete Naim preamplifier gain stage topology with hand selected components and a linear power supply with 210VA transformer and windings for the Digital, DAC and analogue stages. The DAC-V1 can operate with computers running OSX (10.7 and above) and Windows XP, 7 and 8, along with a floating or chassis ground switch for optimum performance with any system. Finally there is field upgradeable firmware, control via the IR remote control or the front panel controls and the DAC-V1 can also control computer playback and volume.
The rear of the DAC-V1 there is a USB input with an “asynchronous” interface that enables the connection of USB equipped computers for playback of digital audio files up to a resolution of 24-bit/384kHz. There are also five S/PDIF format digital audio inputs which are intended for the connection of digital audio sources such as CD players, audio streamers and hard disk players. These S/PDIF audio inputs offer up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution and there are a variety of connection socket types including two RCA phono coaxial, two TosLink optical and one BNC coaxial. Also at the rear is an analogue audio output intended for the connection of a downstream power amplifier or preamplifier, with both DIN and RCA phono socket options provided. If the option is available on the amplifier input, the DIN socket connection should be used in preference to RCA phono socket connection. The DAC-V1 DIN and RCA phono socket options should not be connected or used simultaneously because whilst no damage will occur through simultaneous use, audio performance will be degraded. Finally at the rear of the DAC-V1 there is also a signal ground switch (with a choice of floating or chassis), a power switch and a three-pin power cable connector.
The DAC-V1 comes with a simple IR remote control that includes basic navigation and select keys, along with a play/pause button. There are also keys to adjust the volume, select setup, turn the display on or off and and mute the sound. There is a dedicated key for selecting the USB input and five more that select the S/PDIF digital inputs.
FeaturesThe big feature on the DAC-V1 is the asynchronous USB input and as Naim explains in their literature, digital audio isn’t just about the data – 0s and 1s – and ensuring that each sample value is accurately converted into a corresponding output voltage. It's also about achieving the highest fidelity is ensuring that each successive sample is reproduced at a precise time interval from those around it. If that time interval varies – an effect known as jitter – then the output waveform will be distorted. To prevent this, the master clock that controls the process should, ideally, be placed right next to the digital-to-analogue converter circuitry, not remote from it. The use of an asynchronous mode USB provides for this because it allows data to be ‘pulled’ from the source as required, whereas in other modes the data is ‘pushed’ down the interface under control of the far inferior and distant clock in the computer.
In addition, Naim has a long tradition of using discrete transistor, single ended Class-A amplifiers for all its pre-amplifier stages. This has now been extended to the headphone amplifier of the DAC-V1, which uses the pre-amp output amplifier for headphone drive. The moment headphones are plugged in, the output current drive is automatically turned up five times to give dynamic drive for all headphone impedances. The amplifier runs from a high voltage power supply so has the ability to drive high impedance headphones with the voltage swing they require for open and dynamic sound. The result is the audio stages are kept as simple and pure as possible for both normal and headphone modes. Single ended Class-A is known for its natural sound quality and zero crossover distortion but it is inefficient. However, for driving headphones this is not important, so all the benefits of the Class-A amplification can be exploited.
SetupThe DAC-V1 is designed to be be installed on a desk or equipment standand it's important to ensure it's well ventilated, and not placed directly on top of another item of electronic equipment. It should be installed in its final location before connecting cables or switching on. The DAC-V1 has no standby mode and is intended to be left switched on all the time. If the DAC-V1 is to be connected to a further “downstream” preamplifier, the output volume should be fixed by selecting the Fixed Output option in the Preamp Out setup menu. If headphones are used with the DAC-V1 while Fixed Output is selected, volume control will be restored while the headphones are plugged in.
Setting up the DAC-V1 is extremely simple, especially if you own a Mac, but the digital audio output data from computer audio playback applications can sometimes be compromised by the software configuration and setup. For example, high-sample rate data may, by default, be re-sampled to a lower rate or the data bit-depth may be reduced by software based volume control. The DAC-V1 incorporates a BitPerfect analysis routine, used in conjunction with downloadable test files, that enables the integrity of data output from a computer to the DAC-V1 to be analysed. The BitPerfect analysis tests the configuration of audio playback applications to help ensure optimum audio quality.
The Settings sub-menu provides access to six menus covering input naming, preamp output options, headphone setup, USB volume control, display behaviour and keyboard identification. The BitPerfect sub-menu enables the use of test WAV files located on the USB connected computer to ensure that the playback application and USB connection provide optimum sound quality. The USB Status sub-menu displays the USB input connection data and information, whilst the Firmware sub-menu displays the operating firmware details and provides options for default reset and firmware update. In evaluating the performance of the DAC-V1, we combined it with the NAP 100 and a pair of the recently reviewed Guru Junior speakers.
Sound QualitySince the DAC-V1 includes both the USB input and a number of digital inputs, we tried a number of different sources including CD and files encoded at various resolutions. Kicking things off with an old favourite, we listened to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here on CD at 16/44 and we seriously impressed with the quality of the DAC-V1. The Naim delivered a beautifully poised performance with a precise and detailed delivery. The results were wonderfully musical, with a smooth but lively sound that retained plenty of dynamism. The sounds of the lift and party noise before Have a Cigar were clearly rendered before the guitars burst into life, filling the room with an expansive soundstage. The bass was tight and well timed and the percussion was superbly reproduced, providing plenty of depth. When it came to the rhythmic synthesiser effects on Welcome to the Machine, the DAC-V1 did a great job of creating suitably oppressive tone. However the Naim was just as good at delivering the acoustic majesty of the album's title track and Dave Gilmour's lovely vocals.
Moving on to some higher resolution material we moved on to a FLAC file of Mark Knofler's album Privateering which was rendered at 24/96. The DAC-V1 did a masterful job of reproducing Knofler's gruff vocals and deft finger work, resulting in an experience that was the perfect of combination of refined precision and smooth delivery. The results were spectacular and a powerful reminder of just what can be achieved with higher resolution files. The innate capabilities of The DAC-V1 mean that whether intended or not, your computer can make for an incredibly good digital transport. We have a number of albums encoded using Apple Lossless at 16/44 and our recent foray into David Bowie's back catalogue prompted us to once again listen to Ziggy Stardust. We found that the entire album sprang to life in way that it rarely has before and Mick Ronson's guitar work in particular had never sounded better, like some caged animal begging to set free.
Whilst we expected the DAC-V1 to deliver the goods when it came to higher resolution encodes, CDs and lossless rips, we were curious to see how it performed with compressed recordings. We have a lot of Mike Scott recordings that were ripped years ago using compression and we haven't got around to re-encoding in Apple Lossless or FLAC. Whilst the DAC-V1's precision and clarity could mercilessly expose compressed files, it was fair to say that its overall musicality, tonality and smooth delivery did make these lower resolution encodes eminently listenable. We were transcended by the pure genius of Mike Scott and almost moved to tears by tracks such as You in the Sky, Too Close to Heaven and Beverly Penn. Scott's complex arrangements and eclectic use of instruments were beautifully rendered by the DAC-V1 and powerfully reproduced despite the limitations of the compression. We were also reminded that all of the tracks we've just listed weren't only brilliant, they were also originally unreleased, that's how good Mike Scott is!
- Superb sound quality
- Detailed and excellent bass
- Comprehensive functionality
- Very solid build
- Plenty of competition
- Half-width dimensions
- No standby mode
Naim DAC-V1 Digital to Analogue Converter Review
The look of the DAC-V1 combines simplicity and class in equal measures and we found ourselves thoroughly enamoured of the cute 'half-width' chassis. Whilst some might find the dimensions an issue, especially when trying to pair it with more traditional full-size equipment, there's no denying it forms an especially attractive unit when combined with Naim's NAP 100 two-channel power amplifier. There is a bright, informative and easy to read OLED display on the front, along with a precision volume control and a 6.3mm headphone jack for the single-ended Class-A headphone amplifier. At the rear there is a high-speed asynchronous USB input which can work up to a resolution of 24-bit/384kHz, along with five digital audio inputs (one BNC, two RCA and a pair of TosLinks) that work up to a resolution of 24-bit/192kHz.
Setting up the DAC-V1 is very straightforward, especially if you own a Mac, and the DAC-V1 incorporates a BitPerfect analysis routine, that uses downloadable test files to help ensure optimum audio quality. When in use, the display shows the volume and current input but there is also a detailed setup menu where you can customise the configuration of the DAC-V1 in more detail. We tested the DAC-V1 in conjunction with Naim's NAP 100 two-channel power amplifier and the Guru Junior speakers and the results were spectacular. The Naim delivered a beautifully poised performance with a precise and detailed delivery. As a result it was wonderfully musical, with a smooth but lively sound that retained plenty of dynamism. Obviously the higher resolution recording sounded marvellous but we were surprised at how good the DAC-V1 was with some lower resolution encodes, bringing to life our entire music collection.
The Naim DAC-V1 is an absolute winner, retaining many of the best elements of the company's more expensive DAC and adding an asynchronous USB input. There's also a volume control, headphone amplifier and multiple digital inputs so you can still listen to your favourite CDs. Naim's ambition was to create a DAC that not only delivered the best audio possible from your computer but was also easy to use. Well, with the DAC-V1 they have achieved just that, it's simple to use and your computer will have never sounded so good!
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,250.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money9
Our Review Ethos
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