By way of contrast, DACs are ten a penny these days, and the AAdac needs to carve out more of a niche if it is to succeed. And the AAdac’s place has to be more than being Robin to the AAdrive’s Batman. Fortunately, the DAC is well specified, including the increasingly important aptX Bluetooth receiver alongside the more commonly featured S/PDIF inputs (two RCA and one Toslink optical input), AES/EBU balanced XLR input and USB-B. There is no provision for Ethernet of any description, so network streaming is best left outside of the PureAA (and the Audio Analogue) ecosystem.
Where it gets fascinating is the AAdac also has a surprising degree of flexibility in set-up and operation. You have a choice of seven different filter options. There’s also a remote control where you can change the intensity of the front panel LEDs, control channel balance and allocate that volume control to headphones only or if you want to use the AAdac as a DAC/preamp in a conventional two-channel system.
At its heart, the AAdac sports a top ESS Sabre ES9038 DAC chip. The DAC allows the AAdac to process PCM audio to a potential 32bit, 768kHz precision and DoP (DSD over PCM) to native DSD512. MQA is MIA, however. The only other observation in terms of outright specifications is the headphone socket supports 6.35mm minijack inputs, but not any kind of balanced headphone solution. Unbalanced output tends to be something that headphone enthusiasts get animated about, and traditional audio types hardly notice enough to pass comment. In a way, it probably speaks more about the aspirations and directions of the company rather than any actual sonic limitation on the personal audio output. Suffice it to say, the headphone output of this DAC is excellent; it’s more than powerful enough to drive all bar the most punishing of headphone loads with ease and sounds both dynamic and transparent. In truth, it sounds rather like the DAC through loudspeakers.
We are now so programmed to think of digital in terms of streaming, it seems odd to focus attention on the combination of transport and DAC, but they work exceptionally well together. I have no insight into Audio Analogue’s design process. Still, given how the two complete one another (I wrote this around the time of St. Valentine’s Day) must point to designing both in parallel, even if the AAdac hit the streets first. Given that you are limited to S/PDIF or AES/EBU choice, I prefered the overall balance of the unbalanced operation. AES/EBU seemed a little too ‘bolted down’, but frankly there wasn’t a great deal between them.
What the drive and DAC together brought to the party was at once a sense of poise and solidity to the sound. Such a performance works exceptionally well because usually ‘poise’ and ‘solidity’ are contradictory (think ballet dancer in hob-nail boots). Still, here the two are in a kind of dynamic balance (think Gene Kelly). Orchestral pieces are at once rooted in place thanks to the percussion and soaring thanks to the strings. You can best hear this interplay with something large scale, such as the last movement of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony [Solti, Decca]. This piece deploys practically every instrument in the composer’s arsenal, more or less at full tilt, and as a consequence needs that combination of poise (to allow the massed choirs the chance to soar) and solidity (to let the brass and percussion hammer home). Few do both so well at anything close to this price (this also explains the choice of S/PDIF, as the balanced option was a little too rooted in place here).