The Audiolab Q-DAC press release makes for an interesting read. Most notably, you’ll discover Audiolab thinks this new DAC delivers 98 per cent of the mighty Audiolab M-DAC's performance for two thirds of the price. If that’s right, this new Q-DAC could well flatten everything else at this price level.
Audiolab’s design approach for the Q-DAC makes sense. Take the M-DAC, forego its remote control and large display, and simplify the specification – then sell what’s left for a hefty price reduction.
Q-DAC vs M-DAC
The hard bit is not compromising the M-DAC’s terrific performance too much while cutting costs. Technically, the most obvious changes are a simplified power-supply arrangement and the use of a different ESS Sabre32 DAC chip. For those interested in such technicalities, the M-DAC uses the 9018 and the Q-DAC the 9016.
It's easy to find other areas in which the company has saved the pennies. The casework may look similar, but if the finish on our review sample is anything to go by, there’s less care taken: the rear edge on our sample was poorly machined. In comparison we’ve always thought the M-DAC immaculately made for the money.
The range of inputs has been reduced too: the new DAC has just single optical and coaxial connections rather than a pair of each.
Thankfully, the USB remains an asynchronous design, which puts the DAC’s high-quality internal clock in charge of data flow rather than the computer. This kind of arrangement is almost always a good thing.
Both the USB and coaxial inputs can accept a full-fat 24-bit/192kHz data stream while the optical – as usual – is restricted to 24-bit/96kHz material.
The Q-DAC also loses its pricier relative’s balanced XLR analogue outputs. This is a bit of a shame, considering the partnering power amplifier (the £500 M-PWR) has them, but an understandable economy considering the price level.
While all this talk of cost-cutting measures might sound negative, it shouldn’t be seen that way, as they are typical of what we’d expect any manufacturer to do.
Audiolab should be applauded for keeping the Q-DAC as useful an audio tool as its pricier sibling. Despite what the name implies this isn’t only a digital-to-analogue converter. It has a volume control, and so can be connected directly to a power amplifier or pair of active speakers to form the heart of a digital-based system.
The Audiolab Q-DAC can also form the core of a high-quality desktop system, once connected to a computer and driving a pair of headphones. This little box is well suited to both roles.
So, what’s it like in use? The simplified control arrangement – there’s no large control knob to help scrolling or to enable entering a particular option – means working our way through the menu isn’t quite a pleasant as it could be. Compare it to the Arcam irDAC's remote and it's all a bit fussy.
As is Audiolab’s way there are plenty of digital filter options – seven, to be precise. The differences between them are subtle and the choice comes as much down to taste as anything else.
After playing around with all the options we formed a distinct preference for the Optimal Transient settings, particularly the XD option. It just sounded more vibrant and rhythmically surefooted through our reference Bryston BP26/4B SST2/ATC SCM50 set-up
Once given time to warm up thoroughly, the Q-DAC turns in a good performance. It deals fairly with all the inputs, though as usual we find ourselves preferring the sound through the coaxial and USB connections to that of optical.
The differences aren’t massive, but the extra smoothness of optical doesn’t outweigh the slight loss of punch and precision it exhibits.
Play a WAV file of Paloma Faith's Never Tear Us Apart though the coaxial input, and the track sounds controlled and balanced. The Audiolab laps up Paloma's striking vocal, but doesn't detract from what's going on elsewhere in the track. All the various elements are packaged and presented in a way that sounds completely inoffensive.
Trying a 16-Bit/44.1kHz rip of Dvořák’s 'New World' Symphony (through USB from a MacBook) shows a good level of insight and a precise way with stereo imaging.
Tonally, things are relatively neutral, but perhaps more importantly the balance between the bass, midrange and treble is nicely judged, with no one part of the frequency spectrum gaining undue prominence.
Switch to the Q-DAC's headphone socket and the pleasantness continues. Play a spot of Adele's Rolling in The Deep and Audiolab's impartial, innocuous tone is clearly there.
But the Q-DAC just doesn't quite have the resolution of the very best, nor does it communicate dynamic shifts and the rhythm of a track as convincingly as some.
Play a 24-bit/192kHz version of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and rival DACs lead the way in terms of detail and dynamics. The Audiolab insists on sounding so inoffensive to the point where it becomes just a touch dull.
So there’s talent here, but we're not bowled over. While we think the Q-DAC is a decent option, it lacks the talent to be considered an ‘M-DAC lite’.
The Q-DAC also falls short of matching the sound of similarly priced rivals such as the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC, or bettering cheaper alternatives such as the Arcam rDAC by a convincing margin. Sure, the Audiolab is a more flexible unit than either, but that doesn’t count for much unless the sound is similarly strong.
We weren't blown away by the Audiolab the first time round, and another look at it has confirmed it. Against its newer peers the Q-DAC sounds a little out of its depth.
MORE: Audiolab M-PWR review