ARCAM irDAC Review: The irDAC is an astonishly good consumer HiFi DAC for the current retail price. The sound quality is second to none and easily competes with other full size DAC's. You really can't go wrong with the irDAC.
In 1976 when two passionate Cambridge University students founded ‘Amplification and Recording Cambridge’, now formally known as ARCAM (since 1980), the companies main focus was firmly on producing high performance technologies for the blossoming record production industry. Little did the founders know that their reference quality journey would lead them into the living rooms of early HiFi fanatics and spark a chain reaction that would see their firm rise as one of the British greats in both professional and consumer markets. However, it was back in 2010 that ARCAM coined on to consumer demand for simple ‘affordable’ HiFi separates featuring classic ARCAM quality sound, and therefore the half-size ‘rSeries’ range was born. Four years later, in 2014, HiFi consumers awoke to the birth-cry of the latest ‘rSeries’ product; the irDAC. Built upon the success of the previous generation rDAC, the newly released irDAC is a truly beautiful item that sports many notable improvements, so please welcome the irDAC to the floor.
Unboxing, Features, and Build Quality:
Similar to the entire rSeries range, the irDAC presents itself in well designed super slick, black, grey, teal, and white packaging. Opening the retail packing reveals a comprehensive package full to the brim of everything that you could possibly need to get started. Saying this, the entire package contents is very well excited and screams quality and thoughtfulness. All of the components include; a single one meter RCA interconnect with gold plated terminals, a single one meter Coaxial interconnect with gold plated terminals, one single one meter USB Type A to Type B connector, one single one meter ADAT (or ‘Optical’) light-pipe, one fully functional midi-size infrared remote, two AAA batteries, a quick start guide with letter of thanks, the irDAC, and finally the high quality 1.5 meter 12v switched mode (wall wart) power supply with UK, US, and European slot in adaptors. As the irDAC has not had to build in expensive isolated AC power supplies into the irDAC, using this form of power supply has enabled ARCAM to keep the unit production costs low, kept internal components noise to a minimum, and presented the technology at an attractive price for the consumers.
With a premium oblong form factor that is cast from heavyweight steel and painted matt black, the irDAC looks and feels aesthetically pleasing. But, by using an cast steel enclosure, ARCAM have managed to create a faraday cage that inhibits radio-frequency and electromagnetic interference from penetrating the internal circuitry and effecting the the true sonic capabilities of the components used. In fact this, in combination with a poultry unit measurement of 7.5” x 4.75” x 1.75 inches, allows the small footprint irDAC to be located almost anywhere you could imagine, including places of work, such as an office, without consuming too much desktop real-estate or being adversely effected by the environment around it.
ARCAM have intelligently designed the irDAC with simplicity in mind and, as such, have made the visible exclosure uncomplicated with only a series of multicolour LEDs assigned to each input and a single chrome effect button to cycle through the input sources. On the rear of the unit ARCAM have located the connectivity alongside a simple on/off rocker-switch which can easily be found by reaching fingers, and a USB type I or II physical selector. In 2014 it seems odd why there is a need for a physical switch at all, but if type I is selected windows uses will not require a driver to work and, in turn, can only operate up to 96kHz. I can only see this being of use in very limited situations as once a driver is installed there should not be any issue, however additionally the driver allows up to 192kHz 24bit playback. It is important to remember that the irDAC does not require any drivers for Mac OS X systems and they will operate under the Audio MIDI setup. As a environmentally friendly gesture, if the USB input is selected, ARCAM has coded the irDAC to go into standby mode if the USB power has been disconnected.
One quick look to the rear of the irDAC proves that the irDAC certainly doesn’t mess around in the connectivity department, in fact it is one of the richest that is currently out on the market. Sporting USB input, two independent ADAT inputs, two independent Coaxial inputs, one digital Coaxial output, one analogue left and right RCA output, and an dedicated USB iDevice port, I don’t believe that they could have possibly crammed more into the shell although it is surprisingly reassuring how much space there is between each connector, which comfortably supports premium interconnects with oversized terminals. For Apple users they will welcome the independent Type A USB port in which they can plug their charging cable directly into the irDAC and then charge the battery at the same time as controlling their iPhone, iPad, or iPod, either directly on device or by using the included infrared remote control. This port supports devices using the 30-Pin or Lightning connectors; iPad 2 and above including Mini, iPhone 4 and above, iPod Touch 4th generation and above, sadly the iPod Classic is not supported. Please note that playback via the dedicated Music App is restricted to music file formats that Apple currently support on their devices, which sadly excludes FLAC. Finally it should be understood that all Android devices are not comparable with the (Type A) USB input.
With a fairly average ‘flat’ ±0.1dB reported frequency response of 10Hz to 20kHz, these figures will feel insignificant to the ears 20Hz-20kHz perception and resolution, although some extension, on paper, ‘may’ aid with high frequency accuracy. When it comes to the internal specifications I do have to hand it to ARCAM, they really have done a fantastic job with the irDAC. The irDAC relies on a dedicated asynchronous clock source as apposed to standard clock cycles which makes the irDAC more refined and have a much higher degree of accuracy when it comes to timing.
Superbly built apon a printed PCB, only premium components have been used within the signal path. The likes of Nova Capacitors, Cornell Dubilier Capacitors, NEC Relays, XMOS Micro-Controllers, Texus Instruments Power Amplifier IC’s, Linear Technologies Power Regulators, Wolfson (WM8805) S/PDIF Transceivers, and a pair of Burr Brown PCM1796 DAC IC’s have been engineered together to create a beautiful class leading product. In continuation from the above, you may recognise the Burr Brown PCM1796 DAC chips as they are widely regarded as one of the best currently out on the market. As an individual component, you would normally expect to see the 1796 to be present in technology that is many times the price of the irDAC and how ARCAM has implemented this technology is first class.
Before we progress any further it is important to note the equipment that we have used to assess the sound quality. This includes: McIntosh MHA100 headphone amp, The Chord Company Signature Tuned ARAY RCA cable, Computer Audio Design USB cable, The Chord Company Chameleon VEE3 RCA cable, Lynx Hilo D2A/A2D converter system, Schiit Audio Asgard 2 headphone amp, Tisbury Audio Challenge One headphone amp, Beyerdynamic T90 open back headphones, Dynaudio BM6a MK2 monitor speakers, iPhone 5s, Noble Audio FR in ear monitors, Sonic Studio Amarra 4.0 in standalone mode audiophile music player, Channel D Pure Music 3.0 up-sampled audiophile music player, Pro Tools 9.0 DAW, Macbook Air 2013, various measurement softwares, and various lossless audio tracks from our review collection.
Sound Quality and Performance:
With an excitable and rather fun ‘natural’ presentation and whisper quiet operation, ARCAM’s irDAC is an instantly gratifying desktop converter that sounds as good as it gets in the current price-range. In fact the depth and clarity of the irDAC is undeniable, and likewise the synergy across the frequency spectrum is just excellent. Typically with most recordings the irDAC handles dynamics well with a smooth, ever so slightly safe spongy, sort edge that eliminates harshness and, on the whole, doesn’t tend to ‘bite’ at the audio. However, when it comes to heavily compressed recordings, it should be noted that the clarity of the irDAC has an ability to expose these common pop engineering faux pas, especially ‘radio edits’. Saying this the irDAC is clearly a rhythmically pleasing device and actually does a great job at presenting the overall feel of the track accurately. This is possibly due to the accuracy of timing and the reduction of jitter that ARCAM spent a lot of time trying to overcome. Furthermore, this is a DAC that does’t aim to go out of its way to enhance the depth within the mix, instead you will hear a fluid intimate presentation where objects are not unduly thrown hard left or right off a ‘natural’ stage. Ultimately the position of choice instrumentation is nicely controlled and central vocal lines have a forward presentation that seems to integrate well with supporting harmonies without any masking. Key background supporting rhythmic elements, such as bass guitar, have a solid degree of attack and actually come across as quite buttery across the vertical position, and almost appear to coat the lower end whilst allowing the transient explosive nature of the kick drum to come to the fore and retain their low end energy, timing, and rhythm.
As to provide a tonal descriptive, and in continuation of the ‘natural’ statement above, the irDAC is very pleasing to listen to and can comfortably accommodate extended periods of listening without fatigue. The presentation of the bass is comfortable with an apparent sub-bass roll off and luscious mildly warming feel that extends through and up into the low midrange. As we enter into the midrange, the irDAC has an exciting wonderfully delicate multilayered approach that never lets down even the most complex instrumentation. In particular both male and female vocals carry precious weight and retain their body and life even during complex vocal acrobatics that would normally expose weaknesses in the overall sonic presentation. As we enter into the treble the irDAC exhibits a luxurious feel without any nasty grittiness. The ultra high frequencies appear to, again, be slightly rolled off, which allows the top end to maintain a soothing composure with rich contrasts and delicate timing. Don’t believe for a second that these characteristics blunt the top midrange, because everything feels remarkably airy and well kept.
With excellent build quality, unparalleled sonic presentation, and outstanding attention to detail, the ARCAM irDAC is a sure fire hit that will certainly take some beating. As such, we award this little monster of a DAC with a full five star rating and our ‘Outstanding’ Award.