You can tell Acoustic Research is serious about people listening to music of the highest-possible quality.
Take the lighting system on its AR-UA1 USB DAC with headphone amp, for example.
Build and features
With its LED turning white, cyan (essentially another way of saying green), blue, purple, red or yellow, it tells you the sample rate of the file to which you are listening. It’s simple and unflashy, but geared toward the serious listener.
That’s reflected at the back, where, in addition to the 6.3mm headphone jack, there are two further outputs: optical, whose limit is 96kHz rather than 192kHz, and single-ended analogue.
The designers at Acoustic Research are not aiming solely for those listening with headphones.
Nor are they overly fussed with catering for on-the-go users – the lone USB input is for connecting to your computer – or, judging by the rather clean presentation, those swayed by aesthetics.
Nevertheless, promoting great sound and actually delivering it are different matters.
Luckily, in many ways the AR-UA1 does both. Opening with TV On The Radio’s I Was A Lover, we are immediately struck by the thud of the kick drum.
The extra weight here emphasises the laziness of the drum loop, but without sacrificing detail, cleanliness or agility in the low end.
That extra weight is in the form of muscle rather than fat, and that helps the overall balance. The bass feels as if it’s supporting the mix, providing its foundations, not clouding or dragging it down.
Coupled with a slight softening of the treble, it creates a really smooth sound that won’t fatigue your ears over hours of listening. It’s fun but easy to listen to.
That fun aspect also has a lot to do with timing. A track made up of loops, such as I Was A Lover, lays that kind of thing bare.
The offbeat interjections of brass and synthesizer create their polyrhythm, sending the piece off-kilter without letting it topple over, allowing you to make sense of the vocal line.
We’re left wanting a little more detail and expression though. The AR-UA1 is good, but not £400 worth of good. For the money, we want more.
We want more separation in the vocal harmonies, more texture from the distortion on the guitar; we want it to sound more like real life.
That also applies to dynamics. Take Stevie Ray Vaughan’s intoxicating guitar intro on Tin Pan Alley. It’s velvety and cooler than a polar bear’s toenails, but it doesn’t ache the way a more animated DAC, such as the Chord Mojo would make it.
It is as if the AR-UA1 has traded a level of expressiveness for a smoother, easier listening sound.
These are fine margins, but for £400 we are allowed to be greedy. Acoustic Research has designed a quality product, but it isn't quite capable of blowing its competitors out of the water.
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