In a world changing from CD to download as the primary music source a digital to analogue converter is as easy to buy as a CD player (probably easier, Ed.). In any price range you can think of from less than £50 up to astronomical figures. At the same time a lot of integrated amplifiers now have built in D/A converters to make life easy. Somewhere in the middle are converters like the Lead Audio Northern Fidelity DAC that combine the function of a converter, a preamp and a headphone amplifier. Lead Audio also plans to introduce two power amps in the Northern Fidelity range, a very compact digital power amp and a pure analogue one, both capable of a 50 Watt plus output.
The Lead Audio NF DAC comes in at €700 and offers three inputs. It won’t surprise readers that it has a USB input next to an optical and a coax connection, but the outputs are different from many similar products in this price range. There are both volume controlled and fixed output RCAs and a pair of XLRs. XLR is unusual in this market sector but a very welcome option for me. There’s also a headphone socket on the front panel, the only other connection on the back is reserved for the power supply, a 12 Volt wall adaptor that consumes less than 5 Watts. Three switches control power on/off, input and output, which means that only one type of output is available at a time, they are not paralleled. Be careful with the XLRs, they always output 5.4 Volts at 0 dB input level without volume control. Output is high anyway with a maximum of 2.7 Volt on the RCAs. A credit card size remote offers control over input and output switching as well as the volume. The funny thing is that the unit will never play any louder on the than the setting of the volume on the front panel, the remote will only reduce volume. The knob on the front panel isn’t motorised and does not rotate in conjunction with the remote, which is rather confusing. Another point of criticism is the soft plopping noise from the speakers if no digital input signal is available. Some CD players switch off the digital output when a CD has come to an end instead of sending a stream of zeroes, in that case the plopping starts. First I thought the unit was at fault but a second example had the same ‘feature’. Since this DAC is from the first production run the manufacturer might have solved this minor problem in the next generation.
Inside the box the actual conversion from digital to analogue is done by a Texas Instruments (Burr Brown) PCM 1796 chip that will handle the usual input sample rates up to 192 kHz with a bit width of 16 to 24 bits. Jitter is reduced as much as possible with a 1 ppm TCXO and a Collpitts oscillator followed by a two-step clock buffer to eliminate digital noise from the clock circuit leaking into the analogue signal. Total jitter is claimed to be less than 100 ps. While Wima capacitors are used in the digital circuits, the analogue amplifier part is DC coupled without capacitors in the signal path. Note that the headphone output level is max 3.6 Volt into 600 Ohm reduced to 0.5 Volt into 32 Ohm with an output impedance of 25 Ohm.
I used the Lead Audio NF DAC mainly on the digital output of a Naim UnitiQute followed by a Naim NAP 100 power amp and a pair of PMC Twenty.23 loudspeakers interspersed with Dynaudio Excite X34 speakers. But also to replace my costly Esoteric converter in the main system. My headphones are Sennheiser HD414, rather old but still good enough to let me hear what’s happening. Digital streams over USB came from a Vortexbox PC that recognised the XMOS USB receiver without the use of drivers that are always needed for Windows on high sample rates. In my main system the source is a NAD M50/52 and speakers were PMC fact.12, Focal Aria 948 and again the Dynaudio Excite X34, all behind Audia Flight amplifiers to play as much music as possible during the test period.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet plays Take Five as a starter today and gives the feeling that the Lead Audio NF is a fine DAC, it plays this old but timeless music with a lot off pleasure. The tone is light, there’s no sign of a dark sound, on the other hand the higher frequencies do not suffer from over exposure. They are nicely balanced with the open midrange. Of course the stereo mix is old fashioned but this leads to a very wide stage that lets the speakers disappear with ease. Far wider than Pat Metheny & Anna Maria Jopek on the next CD achieve. Here there’s no lack of bass tones, the low frequencies are fast and clear, as is Mrs Jopek’s voice, it’s easy to understand what the song is about. In this small ssystem the Lead sounds at least as good as the built-in DAC in the UnitiQute and actually even better when it comes to dynamics. The Naim has a more intense bass sound which is a fine thing for small speakers but the current fashion to boost bass in recordings for small speakers and headphones gets a bit much with a full range like my PMC Twenty.23, where the bass can be a bit too much for a small room. Moving away from real instruments to the electronic sound of Tangerine Dream does not disappoint either. Who can tell the truth with these sounds? Does it sound like the artist intended? I see it more like a sound-painting, projecting some strange and fascinating music into the room. Something this little converter does well. Music flows between and outside the loudspeakers in a deep enough stage, albeit the width and depth exceed the height. The stage is flat in that dimension. Moving on to Vanessa-Mae The Violin Player confirms the horizontal dispersion, Vanessa-Mae seems to sit on a chair instead of standing up. Still, music is engaging enough to make most listeners happy. We also should consider the asking price for the Lead and the features it has on offer.
Classical music is less convincing except for small baroque ensembles or very high quality recordings. Larger orchestral works lack power, not the dynamics, just the driving force in an orchestra. The Violin Players shows it, so does the Berliner Philharmoniker with Anne-Sophie Mutter on violin. Her solo violin is beautiful, no problem with that, but do not throw in the complete orchestra. Bach Gamba Sonatas with only cello and piano is a lot more convincing. With high quality material, like tracks from 2L The Nordic Sound, orchestral works come out fine and touch my soul. To make sure these results have nothing to do with the system I use I moved the DAC to my living room and connected the balanced XLR outputs. The Lead Audio didn’t really fit in this expensive system for a few reasons. It can’t match the sheer bass weight, inner detail and imaging of a true high end converter. On the other hand it was far from unpleasant to listen to, piano pieces are fine, as is easy listening jazz, female voices and light classical music. When I had some Dynaudio Excite X34s at home, speakers that produce a lot of bass through the big reflex port, I really enjoyed the Lead NF DAC because of its restricted bass energy. A speaker dependent result, Focal Aria 948s or my own PMCs are more evenly balanced and therefor less suitable. This proves to me that the Lead Audio NF converter is best for smaller systems and/or desktop listening with a decent power amplifier and matching loudspeakers. Late night listening is possible over headphones when the rest of the family are asleep and you want to enjoy a bit more music. I cannot comment in depth on the quality of the headphone amplifier due to a lack of experience in that particular field. However what I heard through my Sennheisers was enjoyable with a very quiet background.
It is easy to imagine a Lead Audio NF in a medium priced system. I my case with a Naim NAP 100 power amplifier, some decent but low budget cables and a pair of speakers. A digital source might be a laptop with USB out, Logitech or Sonos player or a digital output on a CD player. If you do not need built-in streaming capabilities or analogue input the NF DAC/preamp/headphone amp is a fine choice. Do invest in decent speakers and a decent power amp since the NF DAC deserves it. With an integrated amp on hand skip the variable output and use either fixed RCA or XLR. With a Lead Audio on your desk, active speakers come in handy too, maybe next to headphones. The choice is all yours since inputs and outputs offer plenty of flexibility. Within its limitations you will even find the remote control a welcome extra if the DAC isn’t within arm’s reach.