In 1987 Arcam paved the way for the consumer DAC industry with the release of their Black Box, the very first outboard D/A converter to target this market. Somewhat ahead of their time, another 23 years would pass before Arcam returned to what is now a fiercely competitive sector, and a concerted effort has clearly being made to recover lost ground. The newly released irDAC-II is the third iteration of the original rDAC that marked Arcam’s DAC comeback in 2010.
Replacing the irDAC released in 2013, the irDAC-II has been equipped with a new ESS Sabre ES9016K2M converter chip and now not only supports sample rates through USB up to 384kHz at 16- and 24-bit depths but also DSD64 and DSD128, catering for the music libraries and upsampling penchants of all but the most extreme audiophiles.
A new low-latency Bluetooth aptX receiver replaces the previous USB Type-A input and means portable media players need no longer to be tethered, its capacious broadcast distance allowing listeners to revel in free-range abandon. The equally generous twin coax, twin optical and asynchronous USB input array remains unchanged, but the coax output has been replaced with a variable analogue line output, adding preamp functionality to the feature count.
The most exciting addition to the irDAC-II is the unexpected inclusion of a high quality headphone amp taken from Arcam’s flagship A49 amplifier. Increased power rails that provide a maximum 5Vrms into 600 Ohms (that’s 41mW in power terms) and broad load compatibility from 16Ω through 2kΩ suggests that the irDAC-II should be more than capable of driving demanding headphones.
With input selection and volume controllable on both the unit and a well laid out and simple to operate IR remote that also provides transport control of a Mac or PC USB source, the irDAC-II is a well thought out attempt at serving as the digital nerve-centre of a home audio system and integrating with modern lifestyles and listening habits.
Jettisoning the jitter
Arcam has gone to great lengths to stress the performance gains in the irDAC-II that arise from improved isolation of the digital and analogue stages, lower noise power supplies and a direct- coupled signal path. Special attention has also been placed on minimising jitter, which was apparently “an obsession within [their] engineering team”; and that should be good for those who favour the traditional SPDIF methods (coax, optical) of data transfer.
Improved performance and functionality inevitably costs money, and you would naturally expect the irDAC-II to command a significant premium over its predecessor. However, with a sub-£500 retail price it is in fact only £100 dearer, so on paper at least it looks like great value for money.
The irDAC set a very high standard with its implementation of the much loved Texas Instruments PCM1796 (Burr Brown) D/A chip. It was praised especially for its ability to resolve details and present music with a quintessentially British demeanor; calm, composed and understatedly genial. With its new ESS Sabre chip, the irDAC-II retains its predecessor’s pleasing sonic qualities. It is tonally neutral and displays a delightful absence of stridency and digital glare. Rather than being thrust upon the listener, music is delivered with a respectful politeness.
Detail does not however suffer as a result of the irDAC-II’s relaxed presentation; if anything it is improved by it. Since transients are texturally refined and not artificially etched, the subsequent reverb tails decay delicately without grain, presenting a sublime and non-fatiguing sense of clarity and transparency. On one hand lovers of rock and/or other energetic music may find this DAC lacks the bite to fully deliver the levels of vim and vigor craved for these genres. On the other the irDAC-II does not smooth over cracks; edgy masterings will still sound edgy, but won’t be as aggressive as they might through other D/A converters in this price range.
Arcam’s latest DAC casts a generous soundstage with convincing depth and perspective. There is appreciable separation and layering of instruments, which are allowed adequate space to breathe without the threat of encroachment. Even when streaming via Bluetooth, given a decent source file, this DAC manages to render a non-claustrophobic image that is free from objectionable artifacts.
The irDAC-II’s headphone stage is equally excellent, and to all intents and purposes is transparent to the character of the converter. Its neutral voicing does not impart audible colouration and its exceptionally quiet noise floor allows the resolving capabilities of the DAC to be fully appreciated. The powerful output drives both low- (e.g. Audio Technica ATH-MSR7) and high-impedance (e.g. Sennheiser HD600 and HD800S) headphones with ease and asserts ample grip to prevent overhang and smear. Some may find its bass slightly dry, however its open midrange is splendidly revealing; a quality that is hard to come by at this price.
On a practical level, the lack of a volume indicator may decrease the irDAC-II’s desirability to those intending to use it regularly as a preamp and/or headphone amp, for which visual confirmation of the output level is useful if not quite essential. It should also be noted that the 3.5mm input necessitates the use of an adapter onto the standard 6.3mm jack plug found on most high-end ‘phones.
Arcam’s return to the consumer DAC market six years ago was long overdue. Now in its third and most advanced iteration to date, the irDAC-II exemplifies the company’s continued commitment to improving performance and facilitating modern listening habits. While the DAC market is undoubtedly more competitive than ever, the sonically suave irDAC-II stands out as an excellent choice for those seeking a resolving and tonally neutral D/A converter to serve as the hub of their audio system and integrate seamlessly with home lifestyle.
Hardware & OS: Mac Mini 2010/OS 10.11.4, iPod Touch 3rd Gen
Software: Audirvana Plus 2.5.3, iTunes 12.3.3
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S3000
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Monitor Gold 15, Tannoy Autograph Mini
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800S, Sennheiser HD600, Audio Technica ATH-MSR7