Like me, you probably recognize TotalDAC d1-tube-mk2 and the TotalDAC brand (website) in general, but you may know very little about them. This French company has a stellar reputation for making high-end converters, but I’ve not had the pleasure of reviewing or even hearing one of their units until now. As such, a little homework was in order on my end.
TotalDAC, it seems, is an adherent to one of my favorite DAC technologies: the R2R ladder DAC. This type of converter uses a series of resistors in a “ladder” configuration to convert digital samples back into analogue waveforms. It’s a truly discrete configuration and one of the oldest types of digital conversion technology. So what gives?
In the days of heavy-math FPGA chips, custom filter code and complex digital stages with output stages that have vanishingly low distortion measurements, I admire anyone who boldly stands out, especially if they do so in the name of sound quality. Also, I’m a sucker for the sound of many R2R DACs and tube line stages so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear the TotalDAC d1-tube-mk2, which has both.
What’s more, the TotalDAC comes with a bevvy of neat functionality. For example, there’s a defeatable NOS vs. filtered mode, so you can listen to TotalDACs in-house filter or no filter and oversampling at all. There’s also phase reverse, display switching, and that neat dual-triode ECC88 output stage. It can function as a volume control for any of the inputs, so you essentially have an ultra-clean tube buffer preamp. There’s a lot of meat to dig into here, and the TotalDAC comes fully equipped to let you dawdle at the buffet.
Unboxing the TotalDAC was a seamless affair, the hefty black trapezoid and outboard power supply were a swift addition to my typical system, displacing a Schiit Bifrost 2 in the seat of digital honour. Much like the ModWright PH 9.0, the outboard power supply attaches via an external umbilical cord, and once you’ve got your source hooked up–in this case a rotating cast of Grimm Audio, intel NUC and Naim Uniti Nova–you’re ready to go.
My experience with R2R DACs is usually that it’s best to leave them on for thermal reasons, though different companies have different takes on this. I tried the TotalDAC both left on for a week, as well as turned off and on during each session, and I didn’t notice a significant difference either way. Given that this is a tube unit, I opted to turn it off and on for each listening session to preserve tube life and keep the electricity bill down.
Upon turn-on, the TotalDAC lights up with a delightfully retro amber screen that reminds me of something out of the Fallout games. There are a bevvy of options I mentioned above is controllable via the included remote, the volume control and Treble FIR being among the most useful. There was also an option to turn off the display, which was a nice touch during night time listening sessions, though I found the amber display quite easy on the eyes and generally left it on.
Listening for the first time, my immediate impression was one of exceptional resolution. I did an auditory double take to confirm there wasn’t a massive treble boost, but after a few tunes it became apparent that this was not the case at all. There is simply massive detail, especially in the high frequencies. I often use the track “Conduit–Touch” by Eight Blackbird off their Handeye album as a treble test track, as the ring and decay of the triangle hit is a great torture test for tweeters. Recorded with a large ribbon mic, it has a super smooth but simultaneously dense and delicate tone, and is great for discerning tiny differences in treble presentation.
With inexpensive DACs this triangle hit sounds clear, with good DACs it sounds as if someone is hitting a triangle in front of you in the listening room. With the very best DACs I’ve heard, and the TotalDAC is included in this list, the triangle almost seems to shimmer to life inside your head as if you’re wearing a pair of invisible, omni-directional headphones.
This played exceptionally well with the ribbon tweeter in my Proac D30RS, and manifested across frequency range and material as a stunning sense of limitless bandwidth and headroom. My most pleasant experiences with DACs have come when they manifested some of the musically dense and satisfactory elements of vinyl. Not that I want DACs that sound like vinyl, but rather DACs that channel the really dense, filled-in soundstage that are part of what make vinyl so satisfying. The TotalDAC channeled this while preserving the linearity of digital audio in the frequency domain, rather than taking on the frequency response colorations of the vinyl cutting process.
Although my entire system was now tube, nothing about it sounded cloudy, muddy or rolled off in the treble. Rather, it had acquired a decisively fast and solid sound. While everything was still crystal clear and clean in the way only digital can be, the character of sound was just that little bit more engaging. Until I switched off the treble FIR and tried the NOS mode.
Once I did this, though the broad characteristics of the sound did not change, everything became just a bit more diffuse, a bit more open, though also softer and less sharp. In swift comparisons between the two, the FIR seemed to sharpen things a bit in the soundstage, making them more precise and defined. Treble sounds had that incisive, “high-end” super resolving characteristic you often hear in super expensive systems.
With the FIR turned off, the sound of the TotalDAC becomes wider, more diffuse but also denser. Images are a little less specific, but seem more firmly placed in the soundstage. A tiny bit of sharpness is taken off the edge of transients, and there’s a generally more, fluid coherent presentation of sonic images. In direct comparison, there is less obvious micro-detail, but more depth, where details are more placed on a 3-D z-axis rather than a flatter 2-D soundstage.
Bass in the NOS mode was a little more organic, and rounded. I liked both presentations, the sharp, tight bass of the FIR mode drew a little more attention to itself but was addicting on electronic dance music and the like, while the somewhat more textured and diffuse sound of the NOS mode lent itself well to the expressiveness of acoustic music. Bass moved in a more omnidirectional and room-filling manner, an effect I’ve noticed often when filters are removed.
Personally I found the effects of NOS mode preferable and very much to my taste. My system is already extremely resolving in the treble, thanks to that Alnico Magnet Ribbon tweeter from Proac – and I don’t really mind sacrificing a little sharpness for a slightly warmer, richer tone and more depth. In another system however, say one with a less revealing dome tweeter, or electronics that might be brighter than my triode-capable Manley Snappers, the extra definition of the FIR might be desirable. Think of this like the clarity setting in many photo editing softwares. It rearranges the structure of detail ever so slightly to embellish or to add contrast. It’s a subtle difference and the unit sounds great both ways, though I enjoyed having the opportunity to easily turn it on or off.
I dropped in several of my favorite tube preamps to see how the TotalDAC performed in this role as well, as very few DACs at this price point offer a tube output stage. I was pleasantly surprised to find pretty much zero mojo or vibe in the TotalDAC’s output stage. I see this as a plus because it meant that I could happily insert my various pres and hear what they brought to the table, but I could also more easily tell what the TotalDAC itself was doing as a digital converter. I’m not opposed to digital boxes with more colored tube stages, but in this case, clean is the name of the game. The only hint I got that the unit was tube, was that elusive coherence to the soundstage I mentioned before.
I generally favored using a preamp of my own choosing to dial things in and have full access to my phono stages and vinyl collection, however the TotalDAC’s preamp is a fine output stage and could certainly serve as a solid choice for the digital-only audiophile who might wish for ultimate simplicity. I did find the full output a tad lower than some of my larger dedicated preamps, though this is to be expected as TotalDAC lists the output as 1.4Vrms at 420 ohms. Those with older solid state amplifiers that exceed 250kohms might want to think about a separate pre if cranking things loud is your jam. Personally I never found this an issue, but I generally enjoy high-ish sensitivity speakers and tube amps with 40 or more watts, so keep this in mind if your system requires a little more drive than mine.
Wrapping Up with the TotalDAC
In conclusion, I’m rather thrilled with the TotalDAC and a little envious that I have to ship it off to our publisher Scot Hull… I’ve enjoyed my time with it and certainly count it amongst the most enjoyable DACs I’ve heard. If you’re in the market for a spectacularly resolving DAC that can really make digital recordings come alive, this is one to lay ears on.
(Price: 9900 euros including VAT in Europe, 9100 euros excluding VAT out of Europe.)