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Audio Note DAC 2.1x/II Balanced Review
Until recently, I have been blissfully happy with my trusty old Victor XP-DA999 DAC, preferring it to the dCS Ring DAC, and even to vinyl in my system. That was until I lugged the Victor over to KevinF’s bake-off last July, where it got its arse well and truly handed to it by Kevin’s Audio Note (UK) DAC 4.1x Balanced. This has had me hankering after an Audio Note DAC ever since – but the 4.1x has an eye-watering rrp of £10,600 and you never see any second-hand…
I was intrigued when BD Audio announced the arrival of a shiny new DAC in the shape of the DAC 2.1x/II Balanced, which seems to contain many of the design features of the 3.1x and 4.1x models at a somewhat more acceptable price point.
A home demo from BD Audio had me convinced, and a few weeks later I have my very own unit.
The unit is housed in a honking great case: the same Audio Note biscuit tin used for the higher level DACs as well as other products such as the M5 Phono pre-amp I already have. It measures a generous 44 cm x 14 cm x 41 cm (w x h x d). Inside the case it also resembles the DAC 3.1x/4.1x much more closely than it does the lesser 2.1x models.
You can clearly see the DAC board (the green one), with the interstage transformers between it and the analogue output board, then finally the output transformers at the front left hand side of the case. On the right hand side is a version of the M2 valve rectified and regulated power supply also used in the 3.1x and 4.1x models, albeit with upgraded transformers and other components as you go up the range.
Audio Note have an unconventional approach to most things, and their DACs are no different. No re-clocking. No oversampling. No dithering or noise shaping. No digital filtering. A fairly basic 18 bit stereo DAC chip is used, with all filtering being carried out in the analogue domain. The power supply is rectified and regulated by tubes; the output stage is linked to the DAC section by interstage transformers and has tubes driving output transformers, much like AN pre-amps.
Features and Ergonomics
None and no! The back of the unit has RCA and XLR digital inputs, RCA (2) and XLR analogue outputs and a little switch to set it to balanced or single-ended mode.
BUT – your choice is to use the RCA input and single-ended outputs, OR the XLR input and balanced outputs. Not having a balanced pre-amp input, my idea of running the AES/EBU output of the dCS P8i directly into the DAC was thwarted. Luckily the trusty old Victor DAC has a digital output, and can be used purely as a source switch. One BNC-to-RCA cable later we were up and running.
The other irritation? The power switch is on the back, and cannot easily be reached with the unit in the rack. Another remote-control plug socket – I already have one on the pre-amp – smooths over this bump in the road.
Aesthetics and Build Quality
Oh deary me, no. They are available with a slab of brushed aluminium OR a slab of black plastic stuck to the front of a plain, folded-steel case. The aluminium one has a glued-on Audio Note badge and the legend “DAC 2.1x Balanced” in red, in a horrible cod-art-deco font. The black version has the badge and lettering in gold. Both have a power light, thankfully red and not a blue laser beam.
The top of the case is held on by 12 tiny allen screws, one of which has been thoughtfully rounded off at the factory. When a valve needs to be changed I will have to do violence to it…
That said, AN gear is neatly laid out inside and looks well made, if lacking the jewel-like build quality of similarly-priced Japanese gear.
So how does it sound?
My system is set up with all digital sources feeding the Victor XP-DA999EX DAC which is now used as a switch. The digital output from the Victor feeds the AN DAC, then amplification is taken care of by an Audio Note M5 Phono pre-amp and an Air Tight ATM-1 EL34 pp valve power amp. Speakers are Tannoy Turnberry HE with ST100 supertweeters. The main digital sources are a dCS P8i MkII CD/SACD player and a Squeezebox 3.
Both the dCS and the Victor are also connected to the pre from their analogue outputs, allowing on-the-fly comparisons of the three DACs.
So: three very different DACs with three very different philosophies behind them. My previous listening tests had established that I preferred the Victor for CD replay (with the dCS as transport) and there was very little to choose between the dCS playing SACD and the Victor decoding the CD layer of the same disc. So where would the AN DAC fit in?
The AN DAC takes about 30 minutes to warm up and really come on song. When it does, it easily bests the dCS and narrowly beats the Victor. Key improvements?
Soundstage. A three-dimensional front-to-back image that I had only previously heard from vinyl.
Resolution. With the AN it became very easy to tell mp3 from FLAC when the two different encodings of the same song were played through the SB3. With the Victor it has always been pretty difficult as long as the mp3 was high bit rate.
Oh, yeah – the vinyl still kicks it’s arse. But nothing like as hard.
The price: the rrp is around £4,600. Expensive? Not when you consider that the DAC 4.1x (£10,600) is more-or-less the same but with more foo. This design with the upgraded power supply and transformer-coupled output is a real step up from the lesser DAC 2.1x models: really a lot closer to the DAC 3.1.
In short – I love it. A lot.
Links: Audio Note UK (at the time of writing the website hasn’t been updated to include this model. Maybe in a few years!)
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