World Premiere Review!
Audio Analogue's aaDAC digital-to-analog converter is the latest high-end audio component from their PureAA line, which also includes their AAcento integrated amplifier and AAphono phono preamplifier. Audio Analogue says on their website "the aaDAC is a product that perfectly fits in the Audio Analogue philosophy: its simple design, its remarkable sound performances and its great care for the finish and the materials and parts selection, make it a perfect partner for your digital sources".
At first glance, this statement might seem like typical audio manufacturer's advertisement hyperbole, but since reviewing Audio Analogue's Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier in October of 2019, I can say with absolute certainty that if this digital-to-analog converter shares any of the sonic and appearance qualities of this integrated amp, then their description of this component is spot on.
Audio Analogue's aaDAC converter and the Maestro Anniversary integrated are very good-looking components. I've found that more often than not, an audio component that has been designed in Italy is going to appear as if the designer paid as much attention to the appearance of the component as much as its sound quality. Of course, I consider the sound quality to be much more important than a component's appearance, but there is certainly nothing wrong with a component looking good, too.
Audio Analogue's aaDAC features are plentiful, and it seems to have more to offer than many other converters within its price range, including, but is not limited to, a remote, a headphone output, the intensity of its front panel LEDs can be regulated, it has a Bluetooth receiver, one can change its channels balance, has seven different digital filters, and if this DAC is set to volume regulated mode it enables it to also work as a preamplifier.
Some audiophiles might put the Audio Analogue's $4300 price tag either in the "affordable" or "mid-priced" category. Either of these terms will seem laughably naïve, or even patronizing to non-audiophiles, although those who might even shyly admit to being audiophiles know all too well that this price is nowhere near one that we would consider outrageous. Regardless of all its features, the sound of the aaDAC is what is most important to any audiophile worth their salt, and although all converters are getting better as time goes on, and spoiler alert: the sound quality of the Audio Analogue aaDAC has more to offer than any other DAC within its price class than many other converters I've heard within its price range.
The amplifier I used most often with the aaDAC was its matching solid-state Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier, but it also spent time connected to a pair of PrimaLuna Dialogue 6 tube-powered monoblock power amplifiers, or the Pass Laboratories X250.8 solid-state amp used in my main system. Preamps included the vacuum-tubed Nagra Classic Preamp, Mark Levinson's solid-state No 523, and also used the Audio Analogue aaDAC as a preamplifier by setting it to volume regulated mode and connecting the DAC's outputs directly to the power amplifier.
The digital sources I used for this review that was connected to the Audio Analogue aaDAC included a network-based streamer, computer-based music server with hard-wired and network-attached hard-drives, and a couple of OPPO universal disc players, the UDP-203, and the BDP-83 Special Edition to play the occasional silver disc. The OPPO players spun selections from a relatively large SACD collection, as I accumulated quite a few physical discs during the format's heyday. But I have many, many more DSD files on my hard-drives, which are my usual method of listening to this high-resolution format.
Although a Bluetooth signal does not possess the ultimate in sound quality, Audio Analogue's managing director Giuseppe Blanda told me that the Bluetooth included on the aaDAC was hardly an afterthought. They took great care in constructing the Bluetooth's circuit as much as any other in the aaDAC. In nearly every other instance a Bluetooth receiver converts the digital signal it receives within its' circuit. In the aaDAC the Bluetooth signal it receives is sent to the aaDAC's ESS Sabre converter that has among other virtues, a fine signal-to-noise ratio, and very low distortion. This converted signal's characteristics are kept at a high level due to the aaDAC's output stage.
I'm no stranger to Bluetooth in my home (and my car) but as far as comparing it to other Bluetooth receivers, this comparison wasn't a fair one. The Bluetooth in the aaDAC performed much, much better than I was expecting it to, both sonically and otherwise, as I was able to bring my iPhone quite a distance away from the converter before the signal began to sputter. And when listening off-axis I would forget I was listening to Bluetooth, and simply enjoy the music (sorry).
I realize that comparing my reference headphone amp to the aaDAC's onboard headphone amp might not be a very good comparison. But this comparison was further proof that Audio Analogue didn't just slap it on for decoration, that's for sure. It is a very capable headphone amplifier.
I try not to drive myself crazy with wondering how a recording was made, whether an analog tape was converted to digital, or it was a digital recording that doesn't bother me. I've heard countless SACD files that were originally analog recordings, and digital recordings that were originally captured with a high-resolution digital recorder. Both of these techniques yielded recordings ranging from just decent to spectacular.
I consider this SACD to be one of the best sounding rock recordings in my collection, whether recorded digitally or not. It also helps that the music on this disc is good. When this album was made in 1968 the 'Stones were at the top of their game and near the top in popularity, and in my opinion, the material was the best they have ever done before. Through the Audio Analogue aaDAC the sounds of every instrument and voice were made as separate as possible depending on the track and also spread out in a huge soundstage. Whether I was playing the physical SACD or the file on my music server, the sound was just as good, letting me close my eyes and imagine I was a fly on the wall in that London studio.
Despite band member Brian Jones erratic behavior at this point in his career, his contribution to the album was very important to its final sound, with him playing Sitar, Mellotron, tambura, slide-guitar, and harmonica. All are heard on some of the best songs the band ever recorded. There is some unevenness on the recording, as they used a cassette recorder for some of the Keith Richard's lead guitar on some of the tracks, including almost all of "Street Fighting Man". But still, the albums changing moods and their version of the blues mixed with down and dirty rock 'n' roll have an energy that is rarely present on many albums.
On this album, there are plenty of instruments that have an extremely lifelike sound regardless of which converter I listened to over the years. But when playing an album such as this through a component with the sonic prowess of the Audio Analogue aaDAC, I practically have an epiphany due to the contrast of hearing it on crummy car stereos and other portable devices, and then to finally hearing what was recorded on this album. The aaDAC was a perfect tool for an activity like this.
I could easily take up half Enjoy the Music.com's server space talking about all the audiophile characteristics that this converter possessed, its infinitesimally small microdynamic shifts and explosive macrodynamic changes, it's delicate and extensive treble that possessed absolutely no digital artifacts I could hear, even on the crappiest 16-bit/44.1kHz CDs in my collection, and its' powerful, pitch specific, clean, and extensive base response.
With the Audio Analogue aaDAC in the system, what I noticed most of the time when paying full time and attention to the program material, attempting to ignore the artistic but instead focus on the recording's objective sound quality, was the extremely transparent midrange. This wasn't too difficult to notice on just about every single recording I played, so ignore the "attempting to ignore" part. The transparent midrange made the musical material much more difficult to ignore. The midrange was so transparent that it often made me feel as if in the audio chain there was no converter at all, and all I was left with was the music. But I don't think that should have to be discussed in the year 2020. Audio engineers should certainly have this part of the digital playback thing perfected by now, shouldn't they? Well, they don't.
When playing the SACD files of the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra Symphony No. 7 this music let me know how this Audio Analogue converter's sonic personality compared to other converters I've heard ever since I've been privileged enough to hear the very best converters, not only within the aaDAC's price range but well above it.
First, I'll let you know that along with Sibelius' Fourth Symphony, his Seventh is my favorite. Yes, I like his work when it gets creepy when he symphonically describes the barren, windswept Lapland (those who live here, the Sami people, call this region Sápmi) just north of the Arctic Circle. At least that's what I assume he's describing, I don't read much of other's opinions about his works, other than the occasional liner-notes. But I am certainly familiar with his music, hearing it live countless times, and via my music collection ever since I was a young man. And I've always have been drawn to his darker material. There's plenty of this in his one movement, almost paradigmatic Sibelius-ian Seventh, and made it a very good musical selection to judge the aaDAC.
Through the Audio Analogue aaDAC it's was as I was hanging above the orchestra listening to this Sibelius piece along with the microphones at the Barbican. During at least one section I'd hear the orchestra "do the wave" as the Northern Finnish winds swept through the barren landscape, Sibelius's scoring calling for the strings and woodwinds to travel across the orchestra right to left, left to right. Again, it was the mega-transparency of this converter, its midrange letting me hear not only what has been recorded, but somehow transposed into the real thing coming through my speakers and into my listening room. At one point during my listening session to this symphony, I think I could smell lichen.
The Audio Analogue aaDAC is the converter to beat in this price range. Any audiophile that is smart enough to at least audition this converter and then follow my recommendation of not spending more than its asking price until they can hear it will discover that they don't need to spend more to be able to hear the outstanding performance in a DAC. I'm sure of it. The addition of some very nice features including a very capable headphone jack and the convenience of Bluetooth are icing on the cake. This is a beautiful digital-to-analog converter, inside and out.