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Bigger Sound

posted by Matt Pierce on November 29, 2010

As a tinkerer and gadget lover, I couldn’t not be an aspiring audiophile too. Though, when the term ‘audiophile’ is thrown around, it conjures up some lofty, expensive, snobby impressions sometimes. (BTW, someone had a JBL Paragon on Portland Craigslist the other day, listed for $20,000.) I’m all for clean, beautiful sound, but I tend to look at these things differently - as part aesthetics-loving designer, part bargain hunter. I think the best deals in audio equipment should be attainably priced, and deliver a noticeable improvement in listening quality. That’s what we all want, right? When you’ve spend hard-earned money on something, you want to seriously notice an improvement.

Anyway, all of this brings me to a couple reviews of some inexpensive, yet high quality audio goods. This post is about the NuForce uDAC-2, and later on - I have one planned for my Cambridge phono pre-amp.

So, what is a DAC? DAC stands for digital audio converter. When you have music files on your computer, they are probably MP3 or similar format. MP3s are compressed, so you lose quality of the recording to get a much smaller file - so you can fit more of them on your portable devices. Which is fine... but when you have decent headphones, you’re going to hear a difference in quality. As your computer plays digital files, before coming out of your headphone jack, it has to convert them to an analog signal. Inside your computer is a tiny, and not terribly accurate, DAC. What an external DAC gives you is much cleaner, more accurate representation of the music, and even makes low-quality files sound much better.

Why do I need a DAC? Well, no one really NEEDS this crap, right? But, if you’re inclined to pay for better sound, this makes sense if you listen to a lot of music from your computer and have a quality set of headphones. (Mine are Grado SR60s, by the way.) Most of my audio files are MPEGs and AAC files from the iTunes store, and when I’m working, they are playing from my MacBook Pro. The NuForce DAC also has RCA outs, so you can easily plug it into your home stereo input as well. They do make a cheaper version with just a headphone mini-jack out, but I thought RCAs would give more versatility.

Well, what’s the result? Upon purchasing, I was still slightly skeptical, but was really hoping it would live up to the good reviews. When I got it, I plugged it in and started listening. Immediately I could tell a difference. Recordings sounded more detailed, cleaner, with a bigger soundstage than before. (‘bigger soundstage?‘ That sounds pompous.) What I mean, is that there seems to be more definition in the instruments... a analogy would be to think of how your favorite band would sound crammed together in your bathroom - and then think about how they would sound while playing in Nigel Godrich’s basement*.

What is the lesson here? You obviously don’t NEED this item, but if you like gadgets and crave good sounding music, it’s definitely worthy. Comparing its $129 price tag to the amount of time spent listening to music at my desk, I don’t regret it one bit.

*yes, I know it’s not his personal basement.