Owning a Totaldac product is like an audiophile badge of honour. You fought valiantly in the Mainstream Wars and this is your reward. It will never be That Brand Everyone Knows because it’s just too ‘tweaky’ for the poor schlubs who just buy the normal stuff, and yet it’s not deliberately obscure. It’s digital done right, and that filters out the brand-obsessed. To buy a Totaldac product means you are an individual; almost a feet-astride, chin-in-the-wind Ayn Rand-style hero, only without all the neocon mansplaining.
To even describe the d1-core you own requires some discussion, which is best entirely side-stepped by saying “it’s the right one for me!” You didn’t get DSD (DoP) replay as just another acronym on the spec-sheet; you put it there. Streaming was your choice. Those BNCs were your decision, and the bass-boost circuit and the heavy aluminium front panel... yeah, you chose them, too.
The ‘core’ part of the name is one of the few things in which you, the end-user, don’t get a say. In a world of off-the-shelf chips and full digital application notes boards used as end products, that ‘core’ is ‘key’. The Totaldac core means a custom-designed R2R (or ‘resistor ladder’) DAC, sporting 100 Vishay bulk-foil resistors. These were chosen because of their 0.01% tolerance, although this makes for a very expensive DAC. This puts the Totaldac in with some very lofty company. Vincent Brient of Totaldac was one of the first and remains one of the leading-lights in the R2R world (others often build a R2R DAC out of chips, rather than the ‘no-retreat, no-surrender’ true resistor-ladder array approach), and his discrete components approach remains a world-class option. Others can fashion a DAC out of a clutch of DAC chips working together, lines of code on a FGPA, or even monolithic resistor-ladder chips, but only a DACmeister like Brient goes the whole hog and builds a fully discrete resistor-ladder DAC.
Our review sample came configured in the way apparently most d1-cores are configued today; the d1-core DAC with embedded streamer board, which brings UPnP, RoonReadyness, and Airplay to the basic spec. We also included a DSD replay option, and the USB GIGAFILTER cable to connect the streamer to the DAC itself. The entry-level d1-core essentially becomes three (well, four if you include the power supply) boxes in one; streamer, reclocker and DAC.
The use of the GIGAFILTER cable is the measure of the DAC itself; where most would connect the streamer card to DAC using an internal bus connection, Totaldac takes the streamers reclocked output as a USB datastream to be input to the d1-core’s own USB input. The operating system for the streamer can be upgraded by microSD. The online manual for the streamer is comprehensive and will guide you through the set-up and basic operation, but it’s pretty black-belt stuff by today’s ‘just use Google Home’ standards.
It’s worth the effort, though. The DAC sounds just fantastic. It’s one of the most natural-sounding, almost vinyl-and-valve like converters you can get for the money and beyond. I ran the DAC both as a DAC and as a streamer in its own right, but primarily as a DAC for Naim Uniti Core and the Innuos ZENmini Mk 3/LPSU music server combination tested in this issue. Both worked extremely well, although you could go a lot further in the server stakes and still the d1-core would not run out of road.
The first thing that struck me about the d1-core was a sense of harmonic richness and musical structure that analogue systems seem to do effortlessly, and digital often struggles to achieve. It also resolves a lot of spatial information, throwing out a soundstage that is big and muscular, but also deft and subtle.