The US price for the DAC2.1x Signature is $4,900. Like the transport, this DAC sits about mid-way through their “levels” of digital converter products. It includes the expected Audio Note “secret sauce” componentry, including Black Gate caps, Tantalum resistors, a choke-regulated and tube rectified power supply, as well as the separate mains transformer and a transformer-based digital input. It also includes a no-feedback tube-output stage. The AD1865N chip supports 24Bit/96KHz files (even though the chip is 18-bit), and in direct contravention to received wisdom, the DAC is “digital filter free”.
In case it’s not obvious, this DAC is unabashedly un-modern — there are no inputs for USB or Ethernet (wired or wireless), and no “real” high-resolution support (the DAC will truncate down to 18 bits). It’s S/PDIF over RCA or AES/EBU over XLR or nothing.
Call it: “use-case limited”. But if that use-case fits you, then Bob’s your Uncle.
Generally speaking, the sound of this DAC is “warm” bordering on “romantic.” I suspect that other reviewers will prefer the terms “analog” or “musical”, and they have a point — digital music that flows into this DAC comes out sounding rich, full, lush, and very listenable. If you’re looking for a converter that is going to make everything sound pretty flipping awesome, you can pretty much stop right here. Not only could you do a lot worse than this little machine, I am unconvinced that most of you have done better. Different, maybe. Better? Probably not.
Which brings me to an aside. The point I’m making here is pretty simple even if it’s combative — digital converters, by and large, are not awesome. Still.
Don’t get me wrong — the newest ones are very precise. Very clean. They’ve got all the right bits and bobs, say all the right things on the spec sheets, have all the latest support for whatever. And still, they sound like death. You’re welcome to disagree, but until you have the chance to sit down with a great DAC, your opinion is uninformed.
Yes, yes: I am waving my hands violently for effect. I am not saying you’re an idiot. I mean, you may be, but I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that there does not seem to be a useful barometer out there for “good converters”, which is particularly perplexing at this point in the development of computer audio. As you probably know, I’m a huge fan of Stereophile; I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with most of their Recommended Components digital components and their conclusions are inconsistent and confused. And while I will cheerfully caveat these comments with the usual “YMMV”, I will also say that I have high hopes for our erstwhile partner Rafe Arnott in his new gig at Audiostream.
So, back to brass tacks: according to Received Wisdom, the DAC 2.1x Signature should not be an excellent-sounding converter. Especially since it measures like crap. There is nothing in the spec sheet that justifies anything other than a complete dismissal.
And what a shame that would be.
Why? Because while it does not quite reach best-in-class, that ought not to be the last word. Why? Because chances are, this DAC is a damn sight better than what you’ve grown accustomed to. Why? Because what the DAC2.1x Signature does offer is that all-too-rare window that only occasionally sits between two stereo speakers: real music.
In short, what this DAC does is make me completely rethink what actually matters in high-end audio, digital or otherwise. I am (once again) sorely tempted to toss all rulers and barometers out the window and start over, and this time, completely ignore anything that has anything to do with specs or measurements. Which, I fully acknowledge, will present a problem for certain readers addicted to forum-sourced spec-led latest-is-always-greatest opinions.
My suggestion: Don’t be misled. Try one of these DACs for yourself and trust your ears.
Some points of comparison to that notion of “reference”. Compared with my in-house value-reference, the BorderPatrol DAC, I will confess that I find the latter to be more open and more transparent. I should note that the BP DAC also happens to be an exemplary all-over performer in this category (the BorderPatrol DAC retails for half the price of this version of the Audio Note DAC), so this result was not really a surprise.
Where the Audio Note DAC made up lost ground was in the low-end, where there was more there there in terms of bass weight, body and texture. This was a bit more than a simple trade between openness and heft, however. The BP DAC has percussive bass, but the Audio Note DAC just has this pleasing plumpness that sounds especially good on systems challenged by an all-too-common unbearable lightness of being. That is, if you’re running a full solid-state system, you really ought to try this Audio Note source pronto (– otherwise, the usual caveats apply).
Moving directly to my in-house performance reference, the Bricasti M1LE, I found the DAC 2.1x Signature to come admirably close in terms of immersiveness and tangible interactivity — and by that, I mean that both are incredibly playable DACs, rendering music in ways that are mesmerizing and invitational: you will want to listen to music. Both will while away the time, lull you with their beauty, lure you onto the rocks, and peacefully drown you while the Sirens sing on and on and on, wailing their tale of forgotten sorrow into the cold, wet, salt-swept air.
When we decide to be annoying and pull out the metric-driven scoresheet, however, the Bricasti has the advantage. The M1LE is more articulate and more linear-sounding, with a deeper and more nuanced low-end matched by a more extended high-end. The second-order pleasures of tube-based audio are also more than matched with an increased 3-D sense of spaciousness. The M1LE maintains its reference-grade pride-of-place, but it is worth mentioning that the top-of-the-line Bricasti is also $15k and has a faceplate that’s been dipped in actual gold (no, really, actual gold). Apples to apples? Maybe not quite.
But with all that said, I am deeply tempted by the DAC 2.1x Signature’s warm, easy and inviting character and will be the very first to suggest that it will genuinely and unapologetically appeal to those that simply want to play their CDs and don’t care about the latest and greatest formats or the joys of streaming music. And for those lucky few, the Audio Note will create a truly lovely, inviting, and welcoming sound.
My friend Art Dudley reviewed the DAC 2.1x Signature a few years ago, and aside from his “vigorous recommendation”, I don’t have much to add. The DAC 2.1x Signature is an excellent machine. It may not look like much, but it’s simple. It’s easy. And best of all, it sounds damn good.