Merging might not be one of those names that trips off the audiophile tongue, but if you scratch the surface, this Swiss company has one heck of a pedigree. The company is extremely well known in the high-end pro audio world and Merging’s Pyramix Virtual Studio suite is the gold standard in album publishing and mastering. Let’s put it this way; unless your music collecting came to an abrupt end a few years ago, the chances are some of your best-loved recent albums were recorded or mastered using Merging’s Digital Audio Workstations.
Perhaps more relevant given the NADAC tested here, the best studios around the globe often feature Merging’s Horus or Hapi ‘analogue sections’ – robust, network-enabled multichannel DACs, designed for optimal conversion in monitoring and analogue applications in the sort of studios where they bandy around terms like ‘mission critical’.
The networked Merging NADAC is close to a consumer version of the Horus and Hapi converters used in those studios, and as Pyramix is the DSD recording system (developing DXD in collaboration with Philips in the process) it’s little wonder the NADAC is very DSD-friendly. Using the super-robust RAVENNA audio-over-IP networked audio in place of UPnP or USB/DoP, the NADAC is the closest you’ll get to the sound of DSD in the place it was mastered, with phenomenal detail and soundstaging. NADAC even allows completely independent control of the built in headphone amplifier, even to playing entirely separate music files.
The domestic NADAC comes in two flavours – two and eight channels. The logical choice for a two-channel audiophile is not automatically the best one, especially as there’s less than a grand between the two. In fact, the NADAC is built around the high-performance eight-channel ESS Sabre ES9008S D/A converter, and in the NADAC’s eight-channel guise, these channels can be summed into respective left and right digital outputs from the menu. Summing eight-into-two should give slightly superior linearity, a greater dynamic range and a lower noise floor over the two-channel only version. We tested the eight-into-two configuration.
Because the NADAC runs genuinely balanced outputs, you can also use the eight channels to drive stereo balanced lines around the house, for example. Because it’s very much a network-enabled DAC (actually, if we are being brutally honest, the NADAC is so linked to its network, the point where ‘network-enabled DAC’ ends and ‘the best dirty great sound-card in history’ begins is very blurred here), the single AES/EBU, and S/PDIF coaxial and optical inputs are very much on the ‘legacy’ side of things. It does, however, include a word clock input, which is again a nod to its studio heritage.
The clever thing about the NADAC’s network robustness is it makes the converter hugely capable, flexible, and load tolerant. You can stream different music to the line-level outputs than to the headphone sockets, and you can configure the DAC as a network preamplifier, or assign full scale output to the line outs, but retain volume control over the headphone socket, all of which is software driven from the small, but surprisingly informative, front panel.
The downside to this call for network robustness – in fact, the sole downside to the NADAC in a domestic setting – is Merging takes a more belt-and-braces approach to digital system design than every other domestic DAC on the market. This is not deliberate obfuscation and the reasons for this uncompromised approach is predicated on good, solid digital engineering you need to perform when you are building converters for broadcasters who demand electronics that are not fazed by any environment. However, this means there’s no USB port fitted to the NADAC because Merging suggests USB isn’t as fault-tolerant under static electric discharge: the level of static discharge we’re talking about here would effectively destroy most computers anyway, but in a studio environment the tools must survive.