However, such is the sea-change to digital audio in recent years, the combination AAdrive and AAdac is sadly now just a minor interest. The big question is, how does the AAdac work as a digital converter when dealing with the big wide world of digital, and not just the comparatively limited CD-only section of that market? Fortunately for Audio Analogue, it does well. A big part of ‘why’ it does well here is because the AAdac has a unique combination of being at once insightful of good digital sounds and surprisingly forgiving bad ones. Let’s be honest here; not every digital sound we get online is a pristine, high-resolution recording made by demigods of the studio. Some tracks are just straight ‘poor’. Maybe it’s a YouTube video that caught your attention, or you are feeding the output of your TV through the Toslink. Or perhaps it’s that you just can’t be bothered one evening and just listen to some random Internet radio station or even a few podcasts. Some are not that well recorded or are prone to a spot of ‘compression sickness,’ but the AAdac treats such recordings with a remarkably gentle hand. You might find yourself flipping through the different filters in extreme cases; while digital filters are not tone controls, a spot of gentle noise shaping can work wonders.
The rarity here is that the AAdac doesn’t flatten the life out of good recordings in the hope of making the bad ones less vexatious. Play something remarkably well recorded – I usually dip into the ECM label material for a ‘go-to’ generic recommendation. However, specifically, try something like Convergence by Malia and Boris Blank [Boutique] – and you hear a rich, detailed and extremely spacious sound, with a remarkable coherence and vocal articulation. Convergence is a very ‘expansive’ sounding recording, and it can quickly become overblown and exaggerated sounding, but the AAdac plays with a near-perfect balance.
I often like to think of good digital audio performance as a Venn diagram, with ‘grace’, ‘pace’ and ‘space’ as the individual sets. The better the digital device, the closer it gets to the middle point where all three groups are in some kind of equilibrium. Typically, though, few DACs are equally adept in all three areas. The AAdac is definitely toward that middle point, although it scores exceptionally well on the ‘grace’ and ‘space’ sides, it gets a ‘good+’ in terms of ‘pace’. While that means the Malia mentioned above, the recording is exceptionally well covered (because it’s mostly in straight 4/4 time at a leisurely tempo). However, more challenging rhythms, such as ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ by the Dave Brubeck Quartet on Time Out [Columbia], is harder to follow with great accuracy.
Similarly, I like to picture digital products as existing somewhere on a line between ‘moodily rolled off’ at one extreme and ‘paint stripping brightness’ at the other. Few take that centre point between the two, but the AAdac comes close. It errs on what I feel is the side of caution, as it doesn’t sound bright or brash unless the recording demands such a presentation. But neither does it go too dark or too cuddly-sounding. However, the difference between ‘comes close’ and ‘nails it’ in this tonal continuum is expensive. You are potentially looking at something like the APL or Kalista range of digital converters to get a perfect overall tonal balance. That means anything from four to ten times the price of the AAdac.
In both these parameters, the goal is more finding something that fits your requirements than a notional – and most likely, the fictional – digital product with universal appeal. AAdrive and AAdac (either in combination or DAC only) appeal more to those who like that refinement and openness to their sound, rather than those who crave energy and dynamism. The Audio Analogue devices are more ‘Lark Ascending’ than ‘Thunderstruck’; although they can do the latter well, the overall sound is about passion and grace, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I don’t like to class products as being ‘good for classical’ or similar. It’s not as if a built-in music snob dictates what a digital product either likes or dislikes. It’s also somewhat patronising toward all kinds of music; the complexity of King Crimson is arguably more ‘classical’ in orientation than a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, while the energy of a lot of modern European and Briitish jazz has more to do with punk rock and electronica than it does the big band. However, the combination of that refinement and spatial qualities of the AAdac does lend itself toward more naturally recorded live, acoustic instruments, which often means jazz, folk or classical music. It’s not too mellow when playing rock, and does give rock both energy and intensity it needs, but the AAdac remains at its best when making an expansive, expressive sound.
As such, I think the AAdrive and AAdac are both something of a high-end star combination in the making. They deserve to be at the front end of some extremely high-grade audio. I keep thinking of how well they would partner something like conrad-johnson amplification; the combination of big-boned scale and soundstaging with the comfortable, effortless dynamics of both would combine well.