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Arcam irDAC Review

Arcam's latest DAC might be all the digital you ever need

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

20

Best Buy
Arcam irDAC Review
SRP: £400.00

What is the Arcam irDAC?

Arcam has been hard at work rediscovering their stereo heritage over the last few years. When I was getting into hifi in the 90’s, Arcam’s Alpha series represented affordable aspiration and I still look back on my Alpha 7 CD and 7R amplifier very fondly. While I was working part time in hifi retailers at university, I owned a traded in Alpha 9 CD player for a time and still thoroughly rate it. By the time I owned that product, Arcam had already started to make waves in multichannel and over the next few years it proceeded to release some excellent products in this area.

With multichannel demanding ever higher development budgets and the input of an increasingly exotic selection of engineering skills to in turn produce products with painfully short lifespans, Arcam has more recently been engaged in developing stereo products that seek to regain some of the momentum that Arcam has previously had in this area. Some of these products have already appeared on AVForums and the case of the very clever rBlink, we have liked them a great deal.

Now, Arcam is filling in the gaps and updating existing models. The original member of the ‘r’ series was the rDAC, a 24/96 capable DAC with USB and conventional digital inputs that was one of the first of the cost effective USB DACs (a category that is now a major one for many manufacturers). After three years in a very competitive category, the rDAC has gone to the great dealership in the sky and its replacement has arrived in the form of the irDAC. The spec is improved, the price is still competitive and the casework has an all new black finish but does the irDAC move the game on from its predecessor?

Arcam irDAC Design

Arcam irDAC
The irDAC doesn’t look radically different from the rDAC but this belies the fact that the irDAC is all new internally. The biggest change in terms of paper specification is the move from a Wolfson WM8741 chip to a Burr Brown PCM1792. This is more in keeping with other Arcam digital products and in particular the £2,000 flagship DAC, the D33. While the big DAC has a number of features that the irDAC obviously has to do without at less than 25% of the price, many of the basic design features of the bigger model are present here.

One area where this is readily apparent is the power supply. Although the irDAC makes use of a wall wart power supply- perfectly normal for products of this type at this price point - the arrangements once the power is delivered to the irDAC are more unusual. Internally, the Arcam makes use of eight individually regulated power supplies for separate sections of the DAC. As none of these are exactly high voltage, this is not the same as doing something this elaborate with a power amplifier but nonetheless suggests that Arcam has lavished considerable care on the irDAC.

In terms of connectivity, the irDAC improves on its predecessor as well. The older model topped out at 24/96kHz but the irDAC is good for 24/192kHz and does so over more inputs. The Arcam is now fitted with two optical and two coaxial inputs and a USB-B connection for connecting a PC. More unusually, the Arcam also features a USB-A socket that allows for direct connection of an iDevice, including more recent models with the Lightning connection. The USB has two modes selectable on the rear panel. The first is driverless and allows for transfers up to 96kHz while the second requires a driver available on the Arcam website (and shared with the D33) that allows for transfer up to 192kHz. The driver installed without a hitch and didn’t mess any other USB devices up which is always welcome.
Arcam irDAC
Combined with the RCA line output and digital out, the Arcam is well specified. Some rivals offer XLR connections but at £400, I suspect that most irDAC’s will never see a balanced input. About the only feature that might have popped up on a wishlist would have been the Bluetooth module from the rBlink but this would have bumped the price up - and given the rBlink has a digital output, you could attach one to the irDAC if you wanted to. The other conscious design decision is that the Arcam is line level only and not fitted with a volume control as some of the competition are at the price but for connection to a conventional amp, this is unlikely to be an issue.

What Arcam takes with one hand, they give with the other though as the ‘ir’ prefix of the irDAC signifies that it is supplied with a remote control. Granted, the remote is no looker and as it has been borrowed from the D33, so some of the buttons don’t do anything, but the simple act of supplying it has the Arcam at an advantage for anyone using it for more than one source. The volume commands also seem to control quite a few amplifiers as well so you might well end up with full system control. Manufacturers seem to forget that DAC’s are sources too and whilst they wouldn’t sell a Blu-ray player or streamer without a remote, that's not the case with a lot of DACs, so the Arcam is more convenient than most rivals.

Like the preceding rDAC and the other members of the r series, the irDAC is simple but well finished. The chassis is a single piece which is attached to a lower panel that detaches and is rubberised to allow the irDAC to avoid sliding around (and scratching things). One feature carried over from the rDAC and other rDevices is the input lights. These glow red when selected but not connected and green when locked letting you know at a stroke when the unit is good to go. The build quality is excellent too. The Arcam might not be the most exciting looking device going but everything feels solid and well thought out. The small size and low profile of the irDAC should mean that it is easy to install in tight spaces and won’t need its own shelf if you don’t have one.
Arcam irDAC
The irDAC is simple but well finished

Arcam irDAC Setup

The Arcam was mainly used with a Cambridge Audio 851A and Neat Momentum speakers although there was also some crossover with a pair of Morel Octave standmount speakers. Source equipment comprised my Lenovo T530 laptop using Foobar and Spotify and a Naim ND5XS streamer using FLAC and WAV. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC and WAV as well as Spotify and other compressed web material.

Arcam irDAC Sound Quality

In the nineties, one of the reasons that Arcam enjoyed such a strong reputation with those of us shopping at a budget level was that sonically they offered something more than some of the competition. Arcam equipment has traditionally majored on a warmth and scale that much of the competition couldn’t match. My own personal experiences were that Arcam gear simply sounded a little more ‘grown up’ than the competition even at the expense of sounding a little safe.

Fast forward seventeen years and there is more than a little of this on display with the irDAC. With the lossless FLAC of Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood’s Black Pudding, the Arcam has genuinely excellent tonality that allows these sparse and simple pieces to sound properly convincing. There is not the slightest hint of digital harshness or aggression to it and the effect lends the irDAC a musical satisfaction that isn’t always a given at this relatively sensible price point. Neither is this restricted to the simple and small scale. The more ambitious scale of the Pacific Rim orchestral score is handled with an assurance and ability that allows you to suspend disbelief than an orchestra is actually being reproduced in the relatively puny confines of a UK house.
Arcam irDAC
Arcam irDAC

Where the irDAC moves the game on from older Arcam products is that when you ask it to play something faster and more rhythmic, it has a sense of fun and life to the presentation that is a step forward from older Arcam products. The performance of the White Lies Big TV manages to sound, fast, controlled but above all engaging. I’m not really one for air guitar - certainly not when sober anyway - but the irDAC consistently manages to get me head nodding and arms flailing in a way that many products fail to do. Timing is subjective, maddeningly hard to describe and tricky to measure but the Arcam manages to perform in a way that gets it absolutely right. The clever bit is that if you choose to go back to something slower and more refined, the Arcam doesn’t then force it and make it sound like it is straining to go faster or more aggressively than it should.

Neither is there any lack of fine detail that can sometimes be apparent with more ballistically minded pieces of equipment. The Arcam manages to extract and present very fine nuances in a manner that is impressively thorough but very natural at the same time. During a rendition of Marina and the Diamond’s I am not a Robot you are aware of singer Marina Diamandis taking short, sharp intakes of breath in a way that doesn’t really leap out of radio mixes or indeed playback of the same FLAC file on some other devices. At the same time this isn’t detached or detracting from the performance as a whole, simply made more obvious by the way that the Arcam goes about its business.
Arcam irDAC
The Arcam manages to perform in a way that gets it absolutely right.
Against this overwhelmingly positive range of attributes, the Arcam has comparatively few black marks. There is a sense when listening to it against some rivals at a similar price point that the Arcam trades a little bass depth to attain that sense of speed and agility. The bass that there is has the same impressive detail and natural tonality as the rest of the presentation but with something with really deep bass like the high res FLAC of Scratch Massive’s Communion, the Arcam doesn’t hit with quite the same impact as I know this record can manage on some playback systems.

Equally, while I was looking for a particular track and had moved to Grooveshark because it didn’t seem to be on Spotify, the Arcam did show that it won’t flatter poor recordings. With the lower bitrate material on offer on Grooveshark, the Arcam did show up the limitations of the files. This being said, the performance with Spotify Premium and up all the way to 24/192kHz was much more assured and providing you don’t compress you music too far, the Arcam is likely to be absolutely fine and indeed manages to walk a neat line between detail and highlighting flaws.

Verdict

Pros

  • Excellent sound quality
  • Useful set of connections
  • Well built and handsome design

Cons

  • Slight lack of bass weight
  • No preamp or headphone functionality
  • Sounds a little ruthless with low bitrates

Arcam irDAC Review

At a time when most companies are offering us DACs that are digital to analog convertors with something else in the mix - preamps, headphone amps, streamers etc, the irDAC is a model of simplicity. The Arcam is ‘just’ a DAC but where it matters, it is a fantastic example of the breed. Arcam has built you a DAC with a useful number of inputs and a genuinely handy remote control. OK, so there’s no headphone amp or preamp but in the context of boosting performance to an AV system - where you have a preamp and are unlikely to need XLR connections or a headphone socket - the Arcam has a huge amount to offer.

This is because, the irDAC offers genuinely excellent performance. With everything but the most compressed material, the Arcam is detailed, lively and consistently exciting. All of the traits that made Arcam such a potent force in affordable hifi are present and correct but are joined with a sense of life and excitement that older Arcam products didn’t always have. The result is a very convincing blend of features and performance that should put the irDAC right at the top of the list for people looking for a sub £500 DAC.

Best Buy

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Build Quality

.
.
8

Connectivity

.
.
8

Connectivity

.
.
8

Ease of Use

.
9

Ease of Use

.
9

Features

.
.
8

Features

.
.
8

Audio Performance

.
9

Audio Performance

.
9

Value for Money

.
.
8

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
9

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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