Arcam airDAC Review

When is a DAC not a DAC?

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

2

Recommended
Arcam airDAC Review
SRP: £400.00

What is the Arcam airDAC?

Over the last few years, audio companies have had the opportunity to experiment in ways that were basically out of the question when music came on CDs, vinyl and DVDs. With music now making its way to us via those three physical sources plus Blu-ray, the download market finally starting to creak into life and on demand streaming now all vying for our attention, we have seen some unusual products break cover to best deal with this influx. AV Receivers have been sprouting extra features at a rate of knots to try and remain what some more 'on message' members of the industry call ‘content hubs.’ At the same time, digital inputs have appeared on a variety of products like spots on a teenager, closely followed by USB connections. Finally, with analogue happy to sit in a significant but fairly constrained niche, the analogue preamp has been under fire with volume controls sprouting directly from many pieces of source equipment.

In the middle of this, the big winner is the DAC. From a product that was on the verge of extinction, it has come back from the brink to be a big part of many company strategies. We’ve even seen companies who never really looked at DACs in the first place like Denon release products in this field. The types of DAC have proliferated too. From minimalist single inputs designs to full blown digital preamps, there is now something for all occasions. What we haven’t seen before is a DAC that in many regards is not actually a DAC. The Arcam airDAC is a DAC inasmuch as it has some digital inputs but it is also equipped with a feature set that makes it something altogether different. The big question is whether this latest evolution makes it a must have product.

Arcam airDAC Design

Arcam airDAC
Any of you looking that the pictures of the airDAC would be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of déjà vu. The external chassis is shared with the irDAC that I reviewed in January. While the irDAC is a conventional DAC, albeit a bloody good one with the added benefit of remote control, the airDAC is slightly different. While there is a pair of digital inputs, one optical and one coaxial, the major difference is that the USB connection have been replaced with AirPlay and UpnP streaming.

These two connections rather alter what the airDAC is going to be asked to do and for me at least alter the product description considerably. Where the irDAC is unquestionably a DAC, the airDAC is really a streamer with digital inputs and AirPlay. This alters the competition it faces and the requirements it must meet to be considered any good. These affect both the streaming and the AirPlay sections as well the control interface that ties it together. Put simply, although the airDAC is likely to be a strong performer, sharing as it does much of the architecture of a product that has already shown exceptional sound quality, it has different challenges to overcome.

The first is that as a device with no display, the airDAC is completely dependent on the app to be any good as a streamer. Controlling UPnP products with an IR remote is a bit clunky but it does give owners a useful ‘emergency’ control to make a quick change. Without it, the app needs to be fast to load, fast to access and easy to use. Thankfully, the irDAC app meets these criteria pretty well. I don’t like the procedure for selecting either single tracks or derivatives thereof and simply playing the whole album and I’m not keen on it assembling a play queue - if I change my mind, I simply want the streamer to go with it and not leave my original choices needing me to clear them but these are minor gripes. More of a puzzle is that none of my existing music library showed album art on the app despite it being present on pretty much everything else I’ve ever tested.
Arcam airDAC
The streamer module it controls is a 24/96 capable design that supports the formats that people are likely to use - WAV, FLAC and ALAC and it proved completely stable in use. It supports wired and wireless connections and located my two servers without incident. It is a shame that the airDAC can’t emulate the irDAC and offer 192k support but is as much a numbers game as it is a real world ability. I will say that I had real difficultly getting 24/88.2 files to play via network and the Arcam didn't seem too happy playing them. The format of the moment - DSD - is not supported but I’ll leave this for our American friends to fret over and instead concentrate on the formats that actually exist in meaningful amounts rather than condemn the airDAC for not supporting exotic ones. More of an issue for me is that internet radio is not supported. This is one of the major joys of a streamer and it being absent is a bit of a shame. The airDAC is able to pull some of this back and broaden its real world appeal thanks to AirPlay which allows for internet radio via iDevice and of course other functions.

AirPlay is slightly hamstrung not by the limitations of the system but by the implementation. Apple decided some time ago that all devices that make use of it must do so via a single ratified chip and this has proved to be less than perfectly simple to implement and a number of engineers I’ve spoken to in a few different companies have bemoaned the performance of it. This also explains why if you have more than one AirPlay product in your house, even if they came from radically different companies, you probably set them up in the same way - entering an IP address on a temporary network and then placing the device on the network from there. Arcam originally intended for the irDAC and airDAC to hit the market at the same time but have been determined to iron as many kinks as they can out of the system before releasing it hence the delay. The good news is that the setup of the airDAC was as painless as anything with this chip I’ve tried to put on my network.
Arcam airDAC
Where the irDAC is unquestionably a DAC, the airDAC is really a streamer with digital inputs and AirPlay
Elsewhere, the airDAC is similar to the irDAC but not identical. The extensive power supply arrangements are shared but the airDAC uses a different DAC chip to the irDAC for reasons I’m not completely sure about. The solid and elegant casework is identical and this is no bad thing. The airDAC feels solid and well assembled and while I’d struggle to call it beautiful, it is unlikely to look out of place in any setup. The remote has been removed which makes sense in the context of the app but does mean that the digital inputs are a little less accessible than they are in the standard DAC. As with the irDAC, Arcam’s superb Bluetooth implementation used in the rBlink is absent but in an AirPlay product this is probably not going to bother the majority of owners.

Arcam airDAC Setup

The airDAC has been used in my two channel system connected to a Naim SUPERNAIT 2 and Near Momentum 4i speakers and also to my AV system of Cambridge Audio 751R and a variety of speakers including the Monitor Audio Silver package, my standard Mordaunt Short Mezzo speaker set and the Dali Zensor pack that will be reviewed before the month is out. The coaxial input was tested with a Naim ND5XS streamer and the optical with the feed from my Panasonic GT60 plasma. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC, Spotify, Grooveshark and iTunes.

Arcam airDAC Sound Quality

Arcam airDAC
In a statement that I imagine will prove less than revelatory to many people, the airDAC has much in common with the irDAC and this is a very good thing. Arcam has rediscovered their mojo of late and the way that their recent products have balanced the forgiving and refined presentation they are famous for with a freshly discovered sense of drive and attack, makes them far more engaging than before.

This means that listening to the lossless FLAC of Linda Perhac’s The soul of all natural things - the follow up to an album released several years before I was born - the airDAC is a wonderful balance of beguiling warmth and enough detail and sheer life to be instantly engaging. Part of the appeal stems from the bass response. Having respectable bass depth is not something that products struggle to do in the way that perhaps was once the case but what still separates the truly capable from the mainstream is the way that fine detail is mixed into the presentation. Instead of a ‘thud’ you instead get the mix of notes and sounds that makes up the bassline with the impact presented with the necessary force as well. This might sound handy for driving basslines but if you give the airDAC something like a Bach Collegium and the ability to define individual instruments at all points of the frequency spectrum is greatly aids how real the performance sounds. In terms of absolute criticism, the airDAC doesn’t sound as spacious as some similarly priced devices- everything has a slightly intimate feel whether it should or not - but this is not the end of the world.
Arcam airDAC
Like the irDAC, the airDAC can really show the benefits of high resolution audio - a quick blast of the 24/96 version of Tremors by Sohn shows that the airDAC is able to rise to the occasion brilliantly - but the clever bit for me is that the civility of the Arcam ensures that even when you throw less than perfect music at it, it still performs with the same engagement and long term pleasure that it does with something more perfectly mastered. This means that when you switch to AirPlay which is generally going to be compressed, the airDAC still sounds truly excellent.

I have been using AirPlay via TuneIn Radio and Spotify especially into the airDAC and it has proved unconditionally stable and capable of a sonic performance that is perhaps the best I’ve heard from the AirPlay format. I still don’t love the effect it has the battery life of the iDevice you are streaming from and it really doesn’t alter the painful issue that iTunes should be taken out the back of the Cupertino building and euthanized but the airDAC takes a convenience feature and makes it something with a real taste of hi-fi to it.
Arcam airDAC
The airDAC takes a convenience feature and makes it something with a real taste of hi-fi to it
The basic aspects of the Arcam’s performance are present via the additional digital inputs too. The airDAC also seems to have a Dolby Digital bypass - if you send a 5.1 signal to it, it won’t be decoded but it will be sent through the digital output to a device that can make use of it. This is a useful little convenience feature and means that you can connect a PVR to the airDAC and onwards to an AV receiver and decide which should do digital to analogue conversion depending on what you are watching.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Refined and entertaining performance
  • Excellent AirPlay implementation
  • Solid build

Cons

  • No 192khz Support via UPnP
  • No internet radio
  • Can sound slightly restrained at times

Arcam airDAC Review

The airDAC is in many ways more streamer than DAC but I find myself enthusiastic about the product that Arcam has built here. More and more receivers offer this sort of functionality as standard but what they will almost certainly struggle to do is offer the level of performance and slickness of interface that the airDAC can. Equally, if you are stretching the life of an older AV receiver while you wait for the exact nature of how 4k is going to pan out, the Arcam is a seriously clever bolt on and one that would still hold its own against your next gen AV receiver too.

It is not completely perfect - I think the lack of internet radio is a shame and only partially obviated by the availability by AirPlay and 192kHz support would make it a little more future proof but the real world ability of the airDAC is too good to ignore. In the irDAC and the airDAC, Arcam now has one of the most capable line-ups available anywhere near the price. Simply select the one that better fits your needs, sit back and enjoy the music.

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Connectivity

.
.
8

Ease of Use

.
9

Features

.
.
8

Audio Performance

.
.
8

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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