Not that long ago, the DAC was almost completely extinct as a product line. If you had digital, you had CD and the wisdom of the day suggested that the best way to spin them was with a single box player to avoid jitter. Now the CD player is looking like an endangered species and with the options for digital listening opening out into multiple choice, the DAC is back. While they can’t quite match the headphone category for outright growth, DAC’s are big business and many brands have entered the fray with new products.
In the case of Arcam, “re-entered” the DAC market is a more accurate description. The argument over who released the first commercially available DAC is keenly contested but the Black Box DAC can certainly lay claim to being among the very first if not the first on the market so the company has strong history in this regard. After falling back to the one-box CD player for many years, they launched the rDac in 2010 and followed it up with the flagship D33 earlier this year. Now Arcam has turned their attention to the entry level section of the market with the £150 rLink.
The R Series of components are a range of small units designed to bolt on to your existing system and add a specific ability, or in the case of the rCube, give you a complete standalone audio system. At the moment there are three main products, the rDock iPod dock, the rPac USB DAC and headphone amp (not to be confused with wall faced “actor” Robert Pattison and his shortened title of “R-Pat”) and the rLink which is a “conventional” DAC offering a single input over a choice of SP/DIF or Toslink. The earlier rDAC which was originally grouped as a member of the Solo family has also moved into this group and could be thought of as an rPac and USB of the rLink in the same box.
Arcam has taken the decision that as the rPac and rLink in particular connect to a single source and then output a single output to an amplifier, they are designed in such a way as to sit out of sight and this has altered their layout accordingly. Instead of a row of connections on the rear panel, the rLink accepts power and signal in the “front”, works its magic in the middle and squirts it via a pair of RCA connections out of the “back.”
The chassis contains a single Burr Brown PCM 5102 DAC for decoding signals at various sampling rates up to a claimed 24/192kHz. Arcam has had a strong relationship with Burr Brown for many years now and this is a well regarded chipset. Power comes courtesy of a wall wart type external power supply and that is essentially “it.” One useful little feature that has migrated over from the bigger Arcam DAC’s is the fitment of a “running light” LED on the chassis. When the unit is not receiving a signal it is red but when the DAC is locked and receiving a signal, it goes green. This is a simple enough idea but it reduces your head scratching phase in the event of the signal being lost as you can see at a glance if this is happening in front or behind the DAC.
The chassis itself is an impressively solid bit of work for something that is intended to spend its life out of sight. The rLink is essentially a metal ingot with a removable base that allows access to the insides. The connections are recessed into wells at either end and the connections themselves are of a high quality. For £150, it feels impressively robust and although 350 grams doesn’t sound especially heavy, in a product as small as this one, the result is something that manages to feel impressively substantial. The paint finish is good and the rubberised bass gives the rLink reasonable traction on a surface without scratching it while it does so.
Compared to the rest of the unit, the power supply feels rather lightweight but given that the power requirements of the rLink are teeny (Arcam claims a maximum consumption of 0.7 watts) it probably isn’t an area that is worth lavishing a huge amount of money on. Conversely, it is impressive that at £150 Arcam can supply each rLink customer with interconnects, a coaxial digital and a Toslink cable. The packaging is well thought out too.
So what is the rLink actually designed to do? The rPac has a fairly self explanatory existence as the interface between a computer and an audio system which is achieved via USB. On the face of it, the rLink doesn’t have the same clear role. Recent years have seen the price of good quality digital sources plummet and all but the most sparse of AV receivers will generally have a digital input going spare if you needed one.
Arcam’s answer is that while digital has improved, there are a world of older CD and DVD players out there that can benefit from a bit of 21st century technology to improve performance. There are also some modern pieces of equipment that could benefit as well. The unit for me that seems like the obvious candidate are many of the less expensive Blu Ray players on sale at the moment. Many of these are incredibly clever media hubs and act as very effective DLNA clients able to access a considerable amount of media types over a network. As well as the all important HDMI connection, they usually have an optical or coaxial output and here the rLink starts to make a great deal of sense. Connect the HDMI connection up to an AV receiver and the other digital connection to an rLink and you are all set. With the Squeezebox set to be discontinued, is this the best route to a cost effective streaming system?
In order to test the concept of using the rLink as a means of revitalising some older equipment, I connected it to one of the oldest pieces of equipment in my inventory. This is a 2000 Pioneer DV-717 DVD player so is roughly as old as AVForums itself. This tidy example complete with multi region mod, box, remote and manual was secured off eBay for... £2.20. If the rLink can strut its stuff with this, that is an impressively cheap means of securing good quality CD replay.
For a more absolute test, the rLink was also used with my Naim ND5XS and XP5XS as a digital source into a Naim SUPERNAIT amp and Neat Momentum 4 speakers. Other digital sources included a Cambridge Audio iD100 iPod transport and a Sky HD box. I used a variety of source material ranging from MP3 files via AAC lossless and 16/44.1kHz FLAC to 24/192kHz high resolution FLAC via the various items connected to the rLink.
I kicked off by connecting the Pioneer to the rLink via a coaxial cable and also directly to the SUPERNAIT via an analogue input. Popping in my copy of Fink’s Perfect Darkness revealed that this is an impressive CD player for £152.20. The differences between the Pioneer’s internal decoding and the rLink are immediately noticeable at the bottom end. Where the Pioneer is a little soft and lacking texture and detail, the rLink has a bass response that feels deeper, faster and tighter. Through exactly the same amp and speakers, there is a sense that the rLink is simply producing a clearer, more detailed and more rhythmically engaging version of the data on the disc.
Despite its age, the Pioneer had actually raised an eyebrow with the quality of its midrange and treble so the rLink had a harder time of improving this. There is a greater sense of space and separation with vocals and instruments and a slight improvement to the way instruments such as piano and guitar sound. Overall, the effect that this little DAC had on the performance of the Pioneer was very favourable.
Substituting a Cambridge Audio iD100 - a device that has no analogue decoding of its own and is entirely dependent on a DAC to function, gave similarly impressive results. Once again the rLink provided a lively, detailed and extremely enjoyable performance. It seemed forgiving with compressed material such as Spotify replayed via iPhone or MP3 but still managed to reap the benefits of ALAC as well.
To get an absolute handle on the performance of the rLink and to test high resolution playback, I then connected it to the Naim ND5 XS. As you might expect, at nearly £2,000 (plus £1,600 of power supply) the Naim is able to outperform the rLink but the comparison serves to demonstrate why the rLink is as likeable as it is. The Naim is startlingly insightful - it will find details in music that go unnoticed with other digital sources and this is underpinned with some of the best bass I have ever experienced with a digital source. By comparison, the Arcam is softer and lighter than the Naim and simply cannot find the same level of detail. Given the price disparity, this is hardly surprising but the comparison shows the Arcam’s strengths very clearly.
At no time during listening is the rLink anything other than engaging and enjoyable. It has a sense of musicality that seems as happy tearing through Muse as it does with a Chopin Piano concerto. What is most encouraging is how it improves with high resolution audio. 24/88.2, 24/96 and 24/192kHz are all handled perfectly and the jump in the sense of realism and tonality come across extremely well. Given the affordable nature of the product, this is a fantastic way of testing the water of high res if you have a device that can receive the files but isn’t too exciting sonically.
Given the price of the rLink, my criticisms are fairly slight. The biggest is not with the performance of the unit itself but that given how ferociously competitive, the DAC market is these days, spending a little more does buy better specified units. The Cambridge Audio DacMagic is £50 more but offers three digital and one USB input. Musical Fidelity’s V-DAC is the same price and designed around the same ideal of sitting behind existing equipment and the unusual filterless Pro-Ject DAC Box FL is £5 more than that. Neither is decisively better sonically than the Arcam but if you have more than one digital source, they offer the ability to handle them while the rLink is all out of ideas at one.
Sonically, the rLink is very likeable and I cannot see it being actively disliked by many people that listen to it and certainly not in comparison to anything you might secure at the same sort of price. The DacMagic 100 has a slightly greater sense of drive and attack but equally doesn’t have quite the same tonal sweetness of the Arcam. Given that this review has been undertaken on a relatively tight turnaround and this has resulted in listening to the Arcam for several hours at a time, I can say with some assurance that it is unfatiguing to listen to as well.
As an aside, the last Arcam product that passed through my hands was also a DAC. This was the flagship D33, £2,000 of technical wizardry, umpteen inputs and very busy circuit boards when you removed the lid. As you might expect from a product that is over ten times the price of the rLink, it is objectively better in pretty much every regard and an impressive product even at the lofty price point. The rLink is comprehensively outgunned technically but I honestly believe that building this little DAC for £150 is an equally impressive achievement.
- Lively, detailed and involving sound
- Solid build
- Excellent value for money
- Limited to a single input
- Power supply feels a bit flimsy
- No shortage of competition
Arcam rLink DAC Review
With the rLink, Arcam has combined high quality engineering with a bit of practical thinking, sensible design and impressive pricing to make a product that is pretty much a perfect fit for the needs of the moment. If you are tentatively streaming audio via a Blu-ray player or iPod transport and wanted to see what benefits improving the audio decoding might have, this is a fantastic place to start looking. The rLink has a sonic balance that is a great combination of improved detail and bass response combined with a genuine musical ability that gives an insight of what good digital can do.
The strengths of the design are also its weaknesses. If you need more than one input or USB, it won’t suit (although Arcam do of course make the rPac for the latter situation) and there is no shortage of competition for the price difference of a night out. Arcam don’t make any secret of the rLink being a single input DAC though so you ought to know what you are getting! In so many ways, the rLink is reminiscent of the Alpha series components that Arcam was building when I was getting into hi-fi in the first place. The clever and distinctive design, real world pricing and entertaining performance was something we associated with Arcam and it is fantastic to see these qualities alive and well in the rLink. This is an excellent product that has arrived at a perfect time.
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