The idea that you can preserve signal integrity without a large clutch of audiophile cables is one that has taken some time to take root in the audio community and there are some valid and measurable arguments that wireless signals are prone to interference and problems that there wired counterparts are not. As such - even though I use wireless for streaming fairly often - I concede that there are reasons why you might want to stick with wires for certain roles. For my day to day convenience though, not having cabling draped everywhere is a bonus and NAD has come up with a box of tricks that promises to answer this requirement.
On paper at least, the NAD DAC1 promises to answer some of the problems that are made of wireless transmission. Unlike a device competing with the rest of your network traffic for bandwidth, the NAD works on a closed cycle network between sender and box. It is also designed from the ground up to be an audio product and NAD promises that the DAC1 is ‘an easy economical option that doesn’t compromise our incredibly musical sound and promises to boost your enjoyment of your existing component system.’ On paper at least, this sounds like the perfect marriage of performance and convenience but what is it like in reality?
Where the NAD differs from most USB DAC’s is that the input isn’t a conventional USB-B connection but is instead a completely separate USB dongle which connects to a computer using a short USB cable. This is effectively the only input on the DAC1 but it isn’t actually on the DAC1. The good news is that the dongle is powered via the USB socket so requires no battery or charging. The dongle is wireless but not in the wider sense of the word. Once the dongle is connected, it creates a local wireless connection between the dongle and the DAC1. This is completely separate from any wireless network you may have in your house - the DAC1 defied all attempts to be found from any other device.
Of course, the NAD is not alone in using a closed wireless network (Yamaha and Arcam spring to mind as two others) and there is the possibility that something else might clash with it so NAD has had the presence of mind to fit the dongle and the DAC with three different channels to try and avoid this. You don’t even need to change it on both units for it to work.
As such, the back panel of the DAC1 is simplicity itself but not without a surprise of its own. The dongle doesn’t terminate in an input - it is entirely internal. This means that there are no inputs on the unit and the back panel is given over to outputs. The RCA phono connections are entirely normal but NAD has also fitted the DAC1 with a digital output which is more unexpected. This means that as well as doing the decoding itself, the NAD can effectively be used as a USB/SP-Dif convertor for a DAC that is not so equipped which is potentially useful.
The internal decoding of the NAD itself isn’t an afterthought though. NAD isn’t like some manufacturers who will very consistently pick a single DAC chip and stick with it for multiple tasks, preferring to choose what works best in a given situation. In this instance, the DAC is a Burr Brown type and makes use of matching Burr Brown op-amps in the output stage. NAD has been slightly disingenuous in this instance as the DAC is described as a ‘24/192kHz DAC’ which it is but not when placed in the chassis of the DAC1. NAD has gone for maximum compatibility and the USB output from the Dongle is 16/48kHz regardless of the incoming signal. This is not the end of the world - the amount of high res audio out there is still vanishingly small but the resampling from 44.1kHz to 48kHz for CD (and some music services like Spotify) is not absolutely ideal. Products like the recently reviewed Micromega MyDac have gone to the effort of fitting a pair of clocks to handle the different sampling rate multiples, suggesting that other manufacturers are fairly concerned by it. If you do play a high res file via the NAD, it is automatically downsampled.
Aesthetically the DAC1 is classic NAD. It is finished in the company’s determinedly unfashionable field grey and has no controls to speak of besides the wireless frequency changer. Plugging the supplied wall wart power supply in will light a small LED on the front panel up with a red light. Plug the dongle in and establish a connection and the light will go blue - once done that is the summation of control via the NAD. The build quality is pretty good - the DAC1 feels reasonably solid and NAD has had the presence of mind to fit tractable feet to keep the DAC1 in place against the resistance of cables. I think that NAD grey has got slightly darker over the years and the DAC1 now looks pretty much at home with a collection of black equipment.
This makes the NAD a great partner for material that is less than perfectly recorded. It manages to keep even low bitrate files sounding full and controlled. There is no shortage of detail where available but it is presented in a very refined and controlled way that means that it never becomes fatiguing or harsh. If you use it to listen to Spotify, you can start somewhere civilised like Ólafur Arnald’s For now I am Winter and potted your way through the library until you end up with something decidedly uncivilised like the decidedly lo fi Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats and the NAD will take it all in its stride.
When you switch to lossless FLAC via Songbird, the NAD keeps the same benign qualities as it does with compressed audio and it is rarely less than enjoyable. The tonality is good and for the most part it sounds believable and tonally rich. The bass response is reasonably detailed but not the deepest going. Analogue bass like a plucked bass string or a kick drum sounds pretty good but an electronic bass line can lack impact compared to some of the competition. The civility does seem to have been bought at the expense of a bit of timing and attack. There are occasions when you want the NAD to really rock and it won’t quite deliver the goods. It is almost impossible to make it misbehave but this does seem to have been bought at the cost of a bit of excitement.
Where the NAD excels is the soundstage and separation that is can bring to performances. The layout of musicians and performers is unfailingly benign and impressively open. Coupled with the civility of the presentation, this means that that NAD is a piece of equipment that manages to sound enjoyable and convincing at low levels which is something that many pieces of equipment can struggle with. Late night listening is generally a pleasure as a result.
The cost of this amenable performance will depend on how you use the NAD and the computer is it connected to. Compared to the Micromega, it doesn’t have the same bite and attack to it and the NAD is all out of ideas when you play high res files through it. Equally, the Micromega requires drivers to be installed and a USB cable of sufficient length to be in place whenever you choose to use it. This is where the convenience argument comes into place. One of the reasons why the NAD has been with me as long as it has is that that it offers a completely mess free way of getting background music up and running from a computer. I’m personally willing to trade off the last nth of performance for this very useful ability but it is something that you need to decide yourself.
The good news is that connected via the digital output, the NAD assumes exactly the same traits as the device doing the decoding - connecting it to the fairly sophisticated DAC in the 752BD gives a performance that is slightly less smooth and controlled but possessed of better timing and rhythm. It has connected reliably to a number of DAC’s and if you are looking for a way of giving them some wireless connectivity, the NAD is perfect for the task. Bypassing the internal DAC does make it a slight pricey ‘module’ at £300 but the performance that results will be exactly what you want.
The only problem for the NAD is that its wireless party trick is something that has come under threat from a different angle. Arcam’s rBlink is another single input device that can support files up to the same sample rate as the NAD but costs rather less and can perform the task with a wider selection of devices as Bluetooth is rather less specialised than the NAD’s bespoke wireless connection. It also has the same digital output to be used elsewhere. The DAC1 finds itself in a strange no-man’s land where it is more bespoke than the most convenience based devices but still slightly compromised compared to USB designs that make use of a physical cable. The NAD manages to hold its ground thanks to that involving and forgiving sound but I suspect that if NAD chose to design a replacement tomorrow, it might be a Bluetooth device rather than a wireless USB one.
- Simple and completely foolproof connection
- Smooth and involving sound
- Digital output allows for use with other DAC's
- Limited to 16/48khz
- Only one input
- Can sound a little safe
NAD DAC1 Wireless DAC Review
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