Audio Research has used the tagline “There is only one reference” for years now. Such a slogan would seem pretty arrogant for most companies, but Audio Research’s track record of producing top-class kit over the past 40 years makes it much easier to swallow.
The DAC 8 – the company’s sixth standalone digital-to-analogue converter – lives up to both the company’s tagline and heritage.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering the company’s valve-based heritage, this is an all-solid-state unit.
Some DACs from rival companies have tried to sweeten the sound of digital with hybrid designs that use valves in the output stage, but in most cases this approach fails to fully satisfy.
Their sound tends to overplay warmth and smoothness, sacrificing precision and dynamic punch in the process.
Accepts high-res audio
Like an increasing number of DACs, this Audio Research product will accept signals up to high-resolution 24Bit/192kHz level.
To do this through the unit’s USB 2.0 input, though, you’ll need to download driver software specific to the DAC 8. It’s a simple enough process and relatively painless as far as these things go.
The DAC 8 is large. Some DACs come as small as a box of matches, so to find one that’s as big as most high-end integrated amps is something of a shock.
Look inside – easy thanks to the grilles on the lid – and you’ll find that most of the 14cm height is air. It seems the size is simply there to match other AR kit.
Those expecting something glamorous for their thousands are in for a bit of a disappointment, too. The casework fits in with the traditional Audio Research look, and is best described as workmanlike rather than luxurious.
The company’s kit, even the top-end stuff that costs many times the price of the DAC 8, has always been more about function than impressing through flashy finishes or extrovert design flourishes.
The DAC 8 is decently equipped but breaks little new ground when it comes to features. The standard range of optical, coaxial and USB are here, accompanied by the rarer BNC and AES/EBU alternatives.
Balanced and RCA analogue outputs are provided, too.
In our Bryston/ATC reference system, the DAC 8’s balanced outputs worked best, giving a bolder sound without sacrificing its impressive subtleties.
Big, authoritative and refined
Overall, it delivers a big, authoritative and refined performance. If you’re the kind of person who thinks all digital kit sounds cold and clinical, and you’ve the wherewithal, then this is definitely the DAC for you.
Play a 24-bit/192kHz recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11 and
the DAC 8 delivers an unforced sound of spellbinding subtlety and, when required, brutish power.
The overriding sense of refinement never goes as far as rounding off the attack, or spoiling leading edge definition.
Some upmarket rivals put the spotlight on detail in a more obvious manner, but take a careful listen to this Audio Research DAC and you’ll realise everything is in place.
It doesn’t smooth over the fine details, either. Rather, the DAC 8 keeps it all in perspective, with edge definition and the harmonic information that follows being retained in proportion.
This kind of presentation is less impressive on a short demonstration, but is essential to a convincing sound.
One of this unit’s most impressive talents is the amount of space it uncovers in recordings. There’s a convincing sense of scale to the presentation and one of the most spacious soundstages we’ve heard from a digital piece of kit.
Full of attack and vigour
Instrument focus and precision within this expansive sound stage is spot-on. And, importantly, the overall cohesion – the thing that ties together the instrumental strands and makes the whole make musical sense – isn’t lost.
In terms of outright authority and low-frequency power, the DAC 8 need fear no rival: it sounds as solid and muscular as they come.
There is always a danger that products which excel at smoothness and refinement will end up sounding pedestrian when asked to replay something that’s packed with energy. That’s not the case here.
Playing a rough and highly charged recording like Police’s Roxanne, this converter responds with vigour. It delivers a sound with all the attack and drive the song deserves.
The rough edges are readily revealed, but aren’t highlighted – which is an important consideration if your music collection is chosen on musical merit rather than recording quality or production values.
Some DACs don’t sound the same through every input, either. The DAC 8 works equally well through all. A sure sign of a well-engineered product.
The past four decades have shown that Audio Research is capable of turning out fine products on a consistent basis. The DAC 8 can be added with confidence to that long list.