When we listen to music, there’s more often than not a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) in the signal path between the source, the amplifier, and the loudspeakers or headphones that ultimately deliver the sound to our ears. Those two components can make or break your audio experience.
When your source playback device is a computer, the quality of the DAC you’re using becomes even more important. Computers are great at lots of things, but audio reproduction isn’t their forte and computer manufacturers don’t invest significant sums into the computer’s DAC or headphone amplifier; most don’t even pay much attention to isolating the computer’s audio components from the electrically noisy environment inside the computer’s case. Installing a high-end sound card in a desktop machine is one option, but you can’t do that with a laptop. That’s where Optoma’s NuForce uDAC5 ($199) comes in.
The heart of the uDAC5 — an ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC — is housed inside a gray metal enclosure, and it natively supports just about every hi-res music file format you can think of, including FLAC, ALAC, and WAV, as well as DSD files up to a maximum of 384kHz/DSD256. It can handle PCM sampling rates of 192-, 352.8-, and 384KHz, and DSD sampling rates of 2.8-, 5.6-, and 11.2MHz.
If you plan to play hi-res music files with the uDAC5, be sure your software-based media player supports the formats you want to play. iTunes, for example, doesn’t support FLAC or DSD. You can convert FLAC to ALAC (Apple’s lossless format), but if you want to play DSD files, you might want to consider using the cross-platform JRiver Media Center. There are a number of other software options to choose from as well.
I really liked what the uDAC5 did for bass response. The recurring drum beats on City of the Sun’s “Imagination” were thud-like when played through MacBook Air’s headphone jack. It was similar to listening to someone hit the side of a hollow wine barrel. Running that same track through the uDAC5, I could now hear — and sense — the texture of the drum’s membrane and follow it’s reverberating decay. On headphones that emphasize bass response, like the V-Moda Crossfade Wireless, I found that the added detail helped a bit of the congestion the headphones exhibit in the upper bass and lower midrange.
Read more of Theo Nicolakis’ insightful uDAC5 DAC review at Tech Hive.