as reviewed by Victor Chavira
I fondly remember our family's first fancy audio equipment. It was a brushed aluminum Fisher rack system with cassette recorder, five-band graphic equalizer/amp, and analogue tuner. The black cabinet with glass front door was topped by a turntable. My father brought the system home one evening when I was about thirteen. I was immediately awed by the system's analogue controls, needle meters, and musical power. That system set the foundation for my fascination and appreciation for music and audio equipment. When time came for me to cobble together my own system after college, I purchased entry level separates from Adcom. However, if I had to start my audio journey anew in the present, a computer would certainly be the centerpiece of my system. Arguably, the advent of computer audio has been one the most significant developments in the history of recorded sound. Although, I wonder if a computer can inspire a lifelong love for music and audio as did the components of my youth.
For purposed of this review, I assembled an entry level system consisting of my HP G60 laptop, a 60 watt hybrid Kora Explorer integrated, and a pair of B&W 302 speakers. On its own, this system produces satisfactory sound for casual listening. Nevertheless, listening with the headphone out mini plug imparts an unmistakable haze and veil that fails to engage listeners on a deeper level. To alleviate this problem I recruited the help of Nu Force uDAC2. The uDAC2 is match box sized USB DAC. The tiny circuit board is tightly packed with a beefed up power supply and chip that converts data into music with 24 bit resolution at 96 kHz.
My "must have" download for this review is Tarantella II performed by Rolf Lislevand from his recording of music by early 18th century composer Santiago de Murcia. The song is a folk dance with baroque guitars, organ, tambourines and other hand percussion. The music is infectiously rhythmic and dynamic from soft strums and arpeggio cords to thunderous thwacks on hand drums. Listening sans DAC, the music unfolds but the soundstage is flat and the musical details are murky. The listener is left with the disconcerting feeling that the truly beguiling quality of music is just slightly out of reach. Installing the uDAC2, however, restores much needed sense of space and resolution of fine details. Suddenly, musicians emerge from locations on a much improved sound space. Instruments retain their distinct tonal characteristics rather than merge into a homogenized sonic blend.
Eddie Palmieri's rendition of Nica's Dream from his CD Listen Here is another fine recording. The song features punchy horn section, driving bass "tumbao", and jazzy violin solo from Regina Carter. Without the aid of the uDAC2, music pulses along but doesn't swing and motivate as the best Latin jazz should. Inserting the Nu Force was like switching on the lights in a dusky room. Clarity and depth of perception are restored. Music becomes less taxing and more intellectually and emotionally engaging. Contrast this band's take with Wes Montgomery's performance of Nica's Dream on You Tube. Good stuff!
Orchestral performances benefited greatly from uDAC's magic. Bedřich Smetana's The Moldau as performed by Rafael Kubelik and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is a thrilling composition. The movement commences with flutes that emulate the graceful waters of a great river. Then strings introduce the unforgettable nautical melody. The captivating music rolls and swells with flowing harmony. The uDAC2 conveys the splendor of this performance and composition with significantly more resolution and transparency than the headphone output. Each section of the orchestra can be easily identified although not with the superfine image outlines of a more upscale system. Still, with the help of Nu Force's uDAC2, this modest entry level system offers more than a glimpse of what high fidelity audio can achieve in this era.
In addition to its function as a fine USB DAC, the uDAC2 is also a high quality headphone amp. Many evenings were spent listening to iTunes playlists over my trusty old Grado SR60 headphones. The TOCOS volume control attenuates both headphone output and the analog RCA outputs. Again, musical resolution and engagement were greatly enhanced with the uDAC2 versus the headphone output of my laptop. Responding to emails late in the evening while listening to my piano playlist became challenging because my focus constantly shifted from the keyboard under my fingertips to the keyboard under brilliant hands of Antonin Kubalek while playing Brahms' 3 Intermezzi, Opus 117. Also, value of this feature cannot be overstated when watching downloads of missed 30 Rock episodes or the aforementioned Wes Montgomery clip around 11PM when the family is asleep.
Overall tonal balance of the uDAC2 was neutral. The unit did not impart brightness or warmth that was not already present in the iTunes downloads or Apple Lossless files of my favorite CDs. Results may depend on the quality of interconnects although I can't imagine using a pair more expensive than the uDAC2 itself. My one foot length of original Nordost Blue Heaven performed nicely. A dedicated high quality USB cable is must. However, the same rule above applies.
In closing, whether or not a computer can inspire a lifelong love of audio and music for a new generation remains to be seen. Does it really matter how natural an auto-tuned voice sounds? When this generation of iPod listeners settles down with family and home, having a fine audio system to show off will matter. However, I believe by then Apple will have figured out how to beam sounds directly into our ears or brains. Meanwhile, if your computer is the primary source for music and you are currently using headphone output, I urge you to try out the NuForce uDAC2. Along with the Nordost bi-wire jumpers, the uDAC2 ranks as one of the least expensive and most musical accessories of the decade. Victor Chavira