As if the gray hair and increasing pain in my lower back wasn't enough, I received another reminder recently of my advancing age. A twenty-something marketing manager where I work was at my desk, and noticed the stack of compact discs. "CDs," she said, "how old school." Old school? CDs? Have I missed something? I mean, I knew CD sales were dropping every year, but I had no idea that they were downright unfashionable. When did this happen?
Turns out, the "CD vs. digital download" battle is largely generational. While we still have the numbers on our side (far more music is sold on CD than any other medium), Nielsen data suggests that the younger the artist, the larger percentage of their album sales will be digital. For example, 76% of female pop singer/rapper/provocateur Ke$ha's debut album was sold via digital download. The Beatles, on the other hand, sold more than four times as many remastered CDs as downloaded albums the first week each was out, even with all the hype around the Fab Four's debut on iTunes.
Still, it is getting to the point where a good USB DAC is practically a standard-issue component of a hi-fi rig, whether you're an audiophile who's just growing up, or an older one who's just keeping up. The good news about digital technology is that the golden age is always right now, and digital audio components are getting better – and cheaper – all the time. Case in point is the unit under review here. The Music Hall dac25.3 is the latest incarnation of the dac25.2, which received rave reviews from nearly every audio publication online or in print since it came out in 2009. That this $600 unit is the brain child of Roy Hall comes as no surprise, as Mr. Hall has been a champion of over-achieving audio components for over 25 years as importer, distributor, or manufacturer of brands like Shanling, Creek Audio, and Music Hall, among others. Never having had the pleasure of enjoying any of Music Hall's associated products in my own system, I jumped at the chance to review the dac25.3 when it came up.
What's On The Outside
One minor niggle on the front panel: the LEDs that indicate the source and upsampling options are also the clearest indicators of when the unit's power is flowing. When no digital signal is present for a few minutes, the LEDs turn off, giving the impression that the unit is in some kind of "sleep" mode. It may be asleep, but power still flows to the tube in the output stage, its faint glow just visible through the vents in the top of the unit. The life span for the Electro-Harmonix 6922 tube is 10,000 hours according to the manufacturer, or about a year and a half if left on continuously. Replacement tubes can be had for as little as $15 for a Russian-made 6922 identical to the one that ships with the dac25.3, to over $200 for some European-made NOS tubes available in dwindling quantities.
The Proof Is In The
Affordable as the dac25.3 is, I normally wouldn't recommend something even this fancy if all you want to do is play MP3s in the background while you cook, clean, or decorate a Christmas tree...but I bring it up because the Music Hall did such an amazing job in that role. The first chance I really had to listen to it, I spun up one of the myriad holiday playlists available on Rhapsody in December and let 'er rip. You know the stuff: Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, country stars singing about Jesus...not my usual fair, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't bring a tear to my eye of good old-fashioned holiday cheer. Trite as it may seem, that bout of casual listening gave a pretty accurate indication of the dac25.3's strengths that held even under closer scrutiny: the Music Hall sounds spectacular with compressed audio files. Whatever you call it: musicality, involvement, the boogie-factor, PRaT...the dac25.3 has it in spades, and displayed a consistent ability to connect me with the music and evoke an emotional reaction. I went on to spend many afternoons of deep, focused listening just sourcing Rhapsody through the dac25.3.
What truly startled me, partly because it kept happening again and again, is how much more enjoyable it was listening to Rhapsody on the dac25.3 than it was on the Benchmark DAC1 PRE that I own. I could sit and listen to compressed audio files for hours on the dac25.3, whereas the Benchmark's "warts and all" presentation makes it more of a chore: my mind wanders...I end up surfing the web, reading liner notes, thinking about getting a snack, etc. instead of focusing effortlessly on the music. This blew my mind because, besides being a good deal more expensive, the Benchmark is a superior DAC in many ways: better transient response, better dynamic range, better bass control...but whatever it is the dac25.3 is missing; it must be exactly what you want to remove from lossy audio files to make them sound great.
Listening to high-resolution music was a slightly different story. According to the sales materials, the only difference between the dac25.3 and its predecessor is the ability to play high resolution, 96kHz/24-bit audio files via its USB input. I had a few laying around that I bought when I reviewed the Benchmark back in 2009, plus I downloaded a free hi-res album currently being offered at HDtracks. The dac25.3 did a reasonably good job with these, but it wasn't transcendent in the same way it was with lossy files. I have a 96/24 track of "My Romance" from McCoy Tyner's outstanding Chesky album, New York Reunion, an album that I've used to audition audio equipment for years. It's a jaw-dropping recording, and overall sounded good on the dac25.3, but I did notice just a touch of wooliness in the bass that I don't hear even on the Redbook version. Another example was Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra's recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden Suite - Dance of the Tumblers from the HDtracks sampler. This piece has a lot of bells and other high-frequency percussion, all of which sounded gorgeous on the dac25.3, not displaying a hint of that obnoxious digital hash that used to plague cheap digital components. Listening to this on the dac25.3 was enjoyable, but on the Benchmark it was a thrill...it is greater dynamics and low-end control really brought the piece to life, and made me jump out of my chair and shout "Bravo!"
Keep in mind, the Benchmark DAC1 PRE costs a full $1000 more than the dac25.3. For the money, I'm impressed that the Music Hall plays 96/24 files over USB at all (there are not many units that do), and its performance with them is befitting a DAC of this price point. Playing compressed audio files is really its forte, though, and considering that's what I use my computer for more than anything, the dac25.3 has inspired a refreshing case of downgraditis.
Conclusions And Buying Advice