Instead of celebrating its 40th birthday by taking up golf and trading the family Volvo for a two-seater Porsche, Arcam has avoided showing signs of a midlife crisis by opting to commemorate this milestone by refining its successful DAC line.
So Arcam has struck back with a successor to the irDAC: the irDAC-II. Big shoes to fill? You bet.
MORE: Arcam irDAC review
If you are familiar with the irDAC range, you’ll see from first glance that it’s from the same gene pool as its predecessors. The changes more than justify the tacked-on roman numerals though, and include new internal circuitry, a headphone amplifier stage, and the adoption of an ES9016 Sabre DAC.
Arcam’s engineers have worked “obsessively” to further reduce jitter by focusing on isolating the digital and analogue stages, power supplies and a direct couple signal path.
The headphone output stage has been taken from Arcam’s flagship A49 amplifier too, and aptX Bluetooth (via way of antennae) replaces the Apple-friendly USB type-A input found on the irDAC.
Last but not least, there’s now DSD128 support through the asynchronous USB input, as well as PCM support up to 24bit/384kHz.
There are also two coaxial inputs, capable of handling files up to 192kHz, and two optical sockets limited to 96kHz.
As for outputs, there are fixed and variable analogue sockets so you can choose whether or not to hand over volume controls to another component in your system.
The irDAC-II is nothing if not well equipped around the back, leaving its front to bear the 3.5mm headphone output.
The Arcam seems to get bigger with every version. Gaining slightly in width and depth over the irDAC, the (only just) desktop-friendly irDAC-II is the size of a chunky book – and similar in shape too thanks to the aluminium casework’s rounded front.
It’s solid in your hand and, while more practical than plush when it comes to aesthetics, is well finished too.
Buttons adorn the top, making it a tactile, hands-on unit that doesn’t leave so much power in the hands of the remote (which is still supplied in a similar form, just without a power button).
MORE: best DACs 2016
Two input buttons mean you don’t have to skip through all six inputs. There’s another two for volume, although we’d prefer a twisty dial or knob for easier, more intuitive control.
And, if we were to make a snag list, the ability for the Arcam to indicate what sampling rate is being input would be on it.
Along the front, a light for each input turns from red to green when a signal is detected.
Once Bluetooth is selected, pressing the two optical input buttons at the same time initiates pairing, and the flashing purple light goes solid when a connection is established.
In case you haven’t guessed, easy access to the manual is useful.
Maintaining the traditional sonic signature of Arcam’s amplifiers, the irDAC-II has plenty of muscle; in Ray LaMontagne’s Part One - Hey, No Pressure (24bit/96kHz), guitar riffs sound meaty with just the right amount of edge.
Generous amounts of detail stretch to every corner of the Arcam’s big, expansive soundstage, and are delivered on a tonally even-handed palette that’s refined and smooth.
It’s easy to get caught up in the presentation’s full, weighty disposition, but there’s also the space, clarity and precision to ensure his strained vocals and drum strokes are just as articulate.
Even a Spotify stream over Bluetooth sounds decently clean and clear, avoiding that congested, muggy presentation that often plagues low-res files and streaming.
The solid low-end has a real presence as the Arcam knuckles down on the droning, distorted bass line in Iggy Pop’s American Valhalla with conviction and agility. A twinkling transparency to the xylophone notes opening the track confirms the irDAC-II’s sweet, open treble too.
While Iggy’s tremulous croons are clear and focused beneath, there is a shortage of midrange solidity and dynamic expression, which a comparison with the Chord Mojo is only too keen to show up. It overlooks the subtler inflictions in his delivery, and even at this price that makes all the difference.
As we move to Michael Jackson’s Working Day and Night (24bit/96kHz), the Arcam isn’t quite as rhythmically snappy or musically fluid as the Mojo either, having a slightly looser stranglehold over the track’s nippy 129-beat-per-minute tempo.
We can’t help but feel that the Arcam drags its heels a little, lacking the verve and sense of convincing enthusiasm to get us toe-tapping along quite so avidly.
Roll up the red carpet; it’s safe to say that the Arcam irDAC-II won’t be as well decorated as its ancestors, lacking a little expression and losing out to the Mojo in absolute transparency.
Yet it’s still a recommendable, and welcome, third iteration to one of the most successful lines of DACs we’ve seen, and anyone wanting a sonic upgrade for their digital library – whether on their laptop or hi-fi – should consider it a viable contender for their cash.
See all our Arcam reviews
See all our DAC reviews