The Canadians seem to be a honest, dependable bunch by most standards and this is reflected in the music of people like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Oscar Peterson, we’ll reserve judgement on Justin Bieber. It is also apparent in the products of Bryston, who have been making solid, reliable and mercifully snake-oil free electronics for nearly four decades. They made their name with amplifiers, powerful solid state amplifiers with bomb proof build quality and a sound that while it has never set the audio world on fire is low on character and high on consistency. I have heard Bryston amps sound dull and I have heard them sound incredible, they are very neutral and rarely run out of steam so you don't get the sometimes euphonic sound of an amp struggling to cope. They are essentially slaves to the source and signal not to mention the capabilities of the loudspeaker.
A few years back Bryston got into digital with the BDA-1 DAC being followed by some of the first file streamers to come out of North America, so they have a good track record in this area, a background that has seen them releasing the first DSD ready DAC to carry the Bryston marque. DSD processing has become an essential capability in any DAC that's looking for commercial success. It doesn't infer a superior sound to PCM only DACs and DSD material is still very hard to come by through standard channels, but this doesn't mean that a manufacturer can afford to ignore it. There are a number of chipsets on the market that offer PCM and DSD conversion and these are so affordable that we recently reviewed a £200 portable with the facility. And that product underlines the fact that digital to analogue conversion is not about chipsets, it's about how they are implemented and what quality of power supply and output stage is used among other factors.
The BDA-3 uses two AKM DAC chips that offer up to 32-bit/384kHz resolution and the ability to decode up to DSD256, it can do the latter with both USB sources and HDMI inputs from an SACD player if you can find one that offers that output. In fact the Bryston has four HDMI inputs which sets it apart from the rest of DAC crowd and make it eminently suitable for today’s visually oriented home entertainment lifestyle, or ‘watching the telly’ as it’s known. The only other non AV brand that I have come across to offer this is Linn but they don’t make standalone DACs. The Bryston is also unusual in that it has two USB inputs alongside two coaxials, one with a BNC socket that unlike RCA phonos offers a true 75 Ohm connection that is inherently better at the job of transferring digital signals. The other serious connection is and XLR for AES/EBU inputs, there is also a Toslink because it’s the only option on some gear.
There is another USB and and an Ethernet connection on the back of this DAC but these are for control purposes when it’s used in multiroom installations, I had hoped that the Ethernet might be usable for network audio but that is not the case. Outputs come in balanced and single ended varieties of the sturdy rather than unduly shiny variety, this is not a company that’s inclined to frippery. Nor is it very good at blowing its own trumpet, another Canadian trait, because despite no indication on the website this is a fully balanced DAC with impedance matching transformers on all of the digital inputs. The BDA-3 seems quite light when picked up and I did wonder if it had a switching power supply. It turns out (thankfully) to have a linear supply, the low mass is achieved with aluminium casework, apparently this offers better RF shielding and as noise is the natural foe of digital audio that can only be a good thing.
Functionally the BDA-3 is very straight forward, all inputs have separate buttons with indicator lights that turn green when they are locked to a signal, a useful feature given the sometimes unpredictable nature of computer audio. There is even a button for upsampling, which means that it does not upsample as a matter of course, something that is generally a contribution to road safety*. It indicates sample rate with lights next to legends for both PCM and DSD so you know where you are with the incoming signal. Bryston provides a driver for Windows systems and a useful guide on set up in the manual, I used the DAC with both a Melco N1-A digital transport and a CAD CAT Windows based computer running JRiver and JPlayStreamer, this proved easy to set up with the BDA-3 once I had the driver.
The sound of this DAC is almost as unassuming as its appearance, its very neutral, very low on character and very transparent to the quality of the incoming signal. Which could be read as dull, but so long as the music you play is not dull the Bryston will not make it sound that way. For a start it reveals an awful lot of the music’s character in tonal, physical and temporal respects. These characteristics are always definite, there is no vagueness or smoothing over of edges or transients, you would not mistake the BDA-3 for a tube powered device, but neither is it grainy or hard edged. It therefore makes a great job of well recorded pieces of music, revealing the power and shape of bass lines, the depth of tone in acoustic instruments and the acoustic ‘air’ from the venue or reverb from the studio.
With Ali Farka Toure’s ‘Ali’s Here’ (Niafunke) the different rhythms provided by percussion and drums are well separated, as for that matter are all the instruments in the mix, which helps to create a hypnotic effect with music like this. The sense of hands on drum skins is very authentic too, these aren’t just sounds but real musicians playing real instruments. This partly is because the Bryston has excellent bass resolution, bass notes are powerful, extend all the way down yet also stop and start when they need too. Bass has always been a strength of digital audio but this DAC does it better than most, perhaps because it comes from a brand who can do it well with amplifiers.
It is also notably more refined than the last Bryston DAC I reviewed, that was quite a while back, probably the first model, so you’d hope this would be the case of course but it’s nice to have it confirmed. This means that it makes more relaxed music with a more natural and fluent presentation which allows you to forget about the gear and immerse yourself in the performance.
Those results were achieved with the USB input but when I switched to the coax SPDIF input things got more interesting still, it was one of several experiences of this nature that inspired a feature on the subject of digital connections. I used a Primare PRE60 as a streamer and sent its coax output to the Bryston, this produced incredibly strong imaging from Bowers & Wilkins’ rather impressive 803 D3 speakers. With further listening it was clear that the timing and presence that this connection produced was in a different league, this is of course related to the Primare but shows that the BDA-3 is a genuinely transparent device. I carried on using this connection for a number of tracks and found a lot to enjoy on all of them, including the zing of Ross Hammond’s steel strings with all the dynamics and boldness of a lovely guitar, and the clear interplay of musicians on the early instruments of La Folia (Gregory Paniagua Atrium Musicae De Madrid), an album I have on SACD but would love to get the DSD for.
The DSD that I did play sounded better than usual, I have yet to be convinced of the superiority of this format but playing a 2L recording of Beethoven’s Maestoso proved that it can really sing when done well. That was via USB from the CAD CAT, a source that allowed the Bryston to deliver uncanny realism with decent recordings, the low noise of the DAC lets oodles of fine detail through and this combines to produce expansive soundstaging with genuine depth. I still preferred the coax sound however, it times better and that is more fundamental to realistic music than great imaging, but I can imagine that there are some who would take the opposite view. Comparing the Bryston to the Primare PRE60 used as a DAC made a good case for the latter which has a more passionate and exciting presentation, but then at about twice the price you’d hope it would be better. A contrast with another more expensive DAC/preamp, the COS DI, went the Bryston’s way thanks to its greater transparency, better timing and all round neutrality.
The Bryston BDA-3 is not only the best DAC that this Canadian company has made it is one of the best equipped on the market and delivers a sound that is both revealing, fluent and very much a slave to the signal. It’s one of those products that I could have carried on enjoying it for a lot longer than the distributor allowed, but such is the lot of the lonesome reviewer!
* A good thing