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Copland DAC 215 DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amp Review

Meet the new Prince of Denmark

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

1

Highly Recommended
Copland DAC 215 DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amp Review
SRP: £1,999.00

What is the Copland DAC 215?

The Copland DAC 215 is the latest in a number of combined DAC and headphone preamps that have been hitting the market in increasing numbers over the last few years. At first glance, the specification that the Copland brings to the party is entirely in keeping with the sort of thing we have come to expect from the category – a bald list of features shows it being almost identical to the Moon 230 HAD we looked at recently but in reality, the DAC 215 is different in execution and ethos.

This is because Copland is not a 'normal' brand – if indeed such a thing exists in audio circles. Chief amongst their design philosophies is the use of valves in their circuit designs, not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to make use of the positive attributes of them in products that otherwise measure and behave in a way that is hard to distinguish from more conventional solid state designs. This has resulted in products like the CTA 405 integrated valve amp which is simply an outstanding amp that happens to contain valves rather than something overtly 'valve like.'

This means that the DAC 215 comes at the business of being a preamp/DAC from a slightly different place than most rivals. Do these differences result in a product that is better than the strong competition in the sector or a curiosity that glows in the dark but does little else?

Specifications

Copland DAC 215
Like a vast swathe of products from the last few years, the Copland is built around the ESS Sabre DAC – indeed I'm reaching the stage when writing these reviews that I'll simply assume that the product is fitted with one and will only make mention of the chipset if it something different. The ESS9018 chipset is possessed of a killer specification and considerable flexibility and this means that even though we've seen it crop up many times, it still has the capacity to be used in slightly different ways and this is the case here.

The DAC 215 uses a single chip but as the Sabre is an eight channel unit, Copland has elected to use it in 'quad mono' where four channels each side, decode the right and left channels and then sum the results to as accurate a result as possible by in effect 'summing' the results of the four separate decodes and creating the most accurate. As is to be expected from a Sabre based product, the DAC 215 supports PCM up to 384kHz and DSD128. It is fitted with a USB input, two optical connections and a coaxial input.

Like the Moon 230 HAD, the Copland is also fitted with an analogue input that means you can use it as a more conventional line preamp as well. The continued existence of a popular analogue source means that this is not just an expediency option. This operates entirely in the analogue domain and runs separately from the digital section. As a result, the Copland's volume control is an analogue pot and it is here that things get interesting.The Copland uses a pair of ECC82 valves that form an integral part of the preamp and headphone amplifier circuitry. These are dual triode signal tubes and crop up in other Copland products. The valves are well suited to the task and are relatively compact in terms of size.
Copland DAC 215
It is very important to clarify that the Copland is not a valve DAC. The implementation of the decoding is entirely solid state and if you use the Copland as a line level DAC, the valves will have absolutely no effect on the performance. They are only activated when you select the headphone or preamp functions. This is in keeping with Copland's philosophy of using valves where their design suggests that genuinely high performance can be achieved.

In terms of outputs, the Copland has a fixed level output that is entirely solid state and a variable output that has the valves in the circuit. A front panel switch will engage the headphone socket and switch the DAC 215 over to being a headphone amplifier. There are no XLR connections and also there's no remote which can place the Copland at a slight specification disadvantage to some rivals at the price but not a huge one.

Design

Copland DAC 215
As a Danish company Copland taps into the Scandinavian design ethos with their products and the DAC 215 is no exception. The company has recently been using a slatted front panel that gives a hint to the innards of the product without leaving anything exposed. If I'm completely honest, I preferred the older approach that Copland went for which did without them but this is still a handsome and well laid out piece of industrial design. It is clean, unfussy and other than needing a little bit of space above it for ventilation, it places no greater demands on its owner than any of its rivals.

It is also an extremely well assembled device too. Copland does superb metalwork in all their products and the DAC 215 is no exception to this. There is a solidity and attention to detail to the casework that probably has little or no bearing on the absolute performance but helps you feel that your money has gone on something that will last. The controls are logically laid out, simple to use and beautifully weighted. The Copland is another product that goes for a sample rate indicator system that shows the base sample rate (44.1kHz or 48kHz or DSD) and then the multiple of it – x1, x2 etc. I still don't think this is the most immediately obvious way of showing this information but you get used to it.
Copland does superb metalwork in all their products and the DAC 215 is no exception to this

How was the Copland DAC 215 tested?

The Copland has been used with three digital sources, a Melco N1A acting as a USB source, a Naim ND5XS as a coaxial one and a Panasonic GT60 plasma has been used breifly to test the optical connection. The analogue input has been tested by connecting an Avid Ingenium Twin turntable via a Cyrus Phono Signature Phono stage. All equipment has been connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Sigma mains conditioner

In turn, the Copland has been connected to a Naim Supernait 2 amplifier which has mainly been running the Rega RX1 speakers also tested this month. Most testing has been line level but the AV bypass has also been used so the Copland can act as a preamp. The headphone output has been tested with the Audio Technica ATH- A2000Z headphones. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF as well as DSD. Broadcast TV and vinyl has also been used.

Performance as a DAC

Copland DAC 215
One curious aspect of testing valve products (although in some cases these observations apply to other products too) is that if you review them in line of sight, their very appearance can distort what you think you hear. With those backlit valves glowing away, you can attribute stereotypical valve traits to a product – even though in this case, the valves aren't doing anything. For the most part, the Copland has been stowed out of sight.

With visual bias out of the way, the Copland is – perhaps unsurprisingly – quite closely related to some other ESS Sabre based products that have passed through the same test system – although there are some subtle but intriguing differences. The DAC 215 puts in a tonally even and very balanced performance. No part of the frequency response is accentuated at the expense of another and there is a sense that the bandwidth is limited only by the material you play and the speakers you output to (well, that and your ears). The bass extension is impressive with a clean and powerful low-end that grows seamlessly from the midrange.

The treble is no less impressive. The Copland uses its excellent decoding horsepower to sound impressively free from any sense of digital decoding. The treble is clear and absolutely free from any sense of roll off. It ensures that the Copland is extremely easy to listen to for long periods of time. It handles the soaring highs of Air's celebratory Twentyears greatest moves with a fluidity that is extremely appealing.

Where the Moon 230 HAD is all about delivering a well considered but scrupulous 'what you hear is what you get' approach, the Copland is slightly softer and more forgiving and it also has a slightly greater sense of air and space while it does it. There are pros and cons to both approaches and they aren't night and day differences but given that the Moon is about £800 less than the Copland, the DAC 215 doesn't immediately make an airtight case for itself used in this fashion.

Performance as a Headphone amp

Copland DAC 215
Moving to headphones means that the Copland ceases to be an exclusively solid state product and those valves do something more than look pretty. Spend five minutes listening to the Copland on a decent pair of headphones and the purpose of this product snaps into sharp relief. Put simply, the DAC 215 is staggeringly good. Everything that was positive about the performance at line level is retained but there is a sense of life, energy and, for want of a better word, joy that is deeply enjoyable.

Once again, there are few overtly stereotypical valve traits to this. The sound isn't warmer and it certainly doesn't feel rolled off. Another aspect of the Copland's behaviour that is vital as far as I'm concerned is that the DAC 215 is completely silent at idle over both the digital inputs and with the supremely silent Cyrus Signature Phono stage going into the analogue connection. There are no obvious valve stereotypes and no obvious weaknesses either.

The end result is something that is a truly special. The Copland is a headphone amp that manages to deliver consistent accuracy but can additionally engage at an emotional level at the same time. It has headroom sufficient to drive pretty much any headphone you can think of to any level you could choose and it can be at once incredibly intimate and supremely powerful. Great hi-fi is the suspension of disbelief you are listening to a reproduction of music instead of the music itself, in this regard, the Copland is undoubtedly great hifi.
Spend five minutes listening to the Copland on a decent pair of headphones and the purpose of this product snaps into sharp relief

Performance as a preamp

Copland DAC 215
With the Naim Supernait running with an AV bypass in place, the Copland shows a little more of what it can do when running as intended. The Naim is not an obvious partner for a traditional valve product – the sonic philosophy of the company is rather different – but it is a testament to the virtues of the Copland that it partners the Supernait very well. The DAC 215 doesn't change the Naim's basic sonic character but it finds a little more width and the illusion of front to back depth that the more focussed Supernait doesn't generally produce on its own.

Where I suspect that the Copland would truly excel – but sadly have not been able to test – would be with active speakers. If you have actives that come from a studio background, they can tend towards ruthlessness when presented with less than perfect material. The innate virtues of the Copland would allow them to keep their accuracy and precision but just put the slightest of breaks on the forwardness and aggression. The lack of remote control will put it at a slight disadvantage in convenience terms against the Moon but in direct performance terms, the Copland has the edge.

Verdict

9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • A truly world class headphone amplifier
  • Beautifully made
  • Usefully comprehensive specification

Cons

  • Makes less sense as a line level DAC
  • No remote
  • More expensive than some very capable rivals

Copland DAC 215 DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amp Review

The DAC Preamp has now become an integral product category in the two channel market and they can be found at almost every price point in it. Differentiating your product from everyone else's is something that is going to be hard when they will basically do the same thing and – as is the case here – use a decoding chipset that is also in use with many other manufacturers. The Copland DAC 215 does a more than reasonable job of standing out from the pack though. This is a product that has been designed to a distinct set of philosophies – not so distinct that the product is too odd to be considered but ones that nonetheless shape how you might intend to use it.

As a standalone DAC, the Copland is excellent but finds itself in the company of equally talented products that cost less. In effect you will be paying more money for a DAC that has higher power consumption and isn't making use of its main feature. In this case, the competition makes more sense. If you intend to use it as a preamp, let alone as a headphone amp, the Copland's worth changes dramatically. This is an outstanding preamplifier and one that should work well in a great many systems. If you are primarily looking for a headphone amp, the Copland shoots straight to the top of the pack. This is a truly world class device for closed listening and one that is likely to take something truly impressive to beat it.

Highly Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
9

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Features

.
.
8

Audio Performance

.
9

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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