The Bryston BDA-1 DAC
Do you really need a new DAC?
Digital-Analog Converter (DAC) development continues thick and fast, with the range of available models from both established and emerging names offering a potentially bewildering array of choices across the price spectrum. As I mentioned in my recent review of the Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC, the driver here is surely computer-based audio systems, which most people realize offer tremendous flexibility and a likely future path to higher-resolution music, but which also typically require more than a passing knowledge of audio and computer technology.
While the Bryston BDA-1 offers a range of connection options which will work for those who want to use it in a computer-based system, it also strikes me – for no particularly logical reason – as a DAC for those of us who still keep a CD player around and want to get the most out of it. The Bryston site lists the detailed specifications and design goals for those of you keen to learn more, but to me, DAC technology remains something of a black-box, and my eyes glaze over quickly when the conversation turns to chips, rates and modulators.
Curiously, the inside of this particular black box (or silver, if that’s your choice) is mostly fresh air, but that’s a design choice. Most companies manage to create the impression that their approach is either unique, superior or advanced. To Bryston’s credit, their claims for audio products have a record of being backed up with decades of quality technology and superior customer service. (There may be an unhappy Bryston customer somewhere, but I’ve never met one in person or online.) Furthermore, their website offers a comprehensible account of how they built this product, what they mean by “upsampling” and “oversampling,” how their approach to re-clocking of the signal reduces jitter, and what they believe is the true distinguishing factor in their design: better power regulation and close attention to detail in the amplification stages.
I am as seduced as anyone by parts quality and the presumed potency of new digital advances, but at the end of the day, I make my choices by listening. Over the last 15 years I’ve gone through a few digital front-ends and generally concluded that this was not the area where spending more bought obvious improvement. It’s been a decade since I dropped money on a new DAC, preferring to purchase well-made single-box players every three years or so to give me a taste of current designs, while relegating the older players to secondary systems at home and the office. Like most audiophiles, I’ve read the reviews of uber-expensive digital gear and imagined there must be some level of performance that put my own system to shame; but somehow, I rarely heard it and I never could afford to try it. The popularity of new DACs has broken that habit, and the Bryston fell hot on the heels of my recently-completed time with the over-achieving Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC (see Affordable Audio Dec 2010 issue), giving me further immersion into this fast-changing area of audio technology.
Set up and use
The DAC-1 is a pretty unassuming piece of gear. It is slim and light yet – while well-made – does not pad up on weight simply to create an impression of quality (the specs suggest an 18 lb shipping weight but I am sure this is inaccurate, as mine was less than 8 lbs packed in its box). A solid front panel offers neat and responsive button selectors for each input, sampling rate indicators, and a deeply etched Bryston insignia, giving the whole a slightly understated but well-finished look. The lightness extends to the manual which is also a pretty basic four-pager, one of which is blank except for the company logo. But maybe this is a good sign, suggesting as it does that there is little challenge in setting up the BDA-1. I found that to be true in practice as well as theory.
Out of the box I eschewed the stock power cord, and used a Grover Huffman cord that has worked well with all digital front-ends and preamps that I’ve partnered it with. First up, I connected the DAC in a secondary system, accepting the output of my old Denon 2900 via coaxial output and feeding the newly-processed bits to my long-loved Naim Nait 2 integrated and KEF 103/2 speakers. This is the first port of call for all new review components while they await their turn in my main rig. This helps me check setup, connections and generally get a sense that everything is in working order during break-in. I don’t formulate much of a listening impression at this stage, but I could not help but compare the Bryston-enabled setup to the Denon on its own and yes, it clearly made things better. How much better became very obvious when the Bryston settled into the main rig.
Fed via coaxial cable from my Marantz SA11 SACD player, the Bryston made an immediate and positive impression on all who heard it. Whereas it took a few days of close back-and-forth listening to the Eastern Electric DAC for me to appreciate its effects with the Marantz, the BDA-1 left me in no doubt from the get-go that it could make a very good player sound like a great one. This was not a subtle improvement, the kind that gives a little more detail, a clearer mid-range, or a slightly tighter bass; but instead, a deeply-satisfying sense of music – all music – becoming richer in timbre, more detailed, and just plain better-sounding. In a nutshell, as soon as I heard its effect on my reference player, I knew that the goal-posts had moved.
My first listening notes, upon putting the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s “The Ground” onto my player, were “the sound is organic” – a term that suggested itself in response to the space and presence of music that oozed forth. Air around cymbals became more palpable, and the piano just sounded more real. Bass took on a texture that left it fully-fleshed and clean, without overhang. I don’t wish to belabor the point, but one can distinguish amps in particular by listening to their reproduction of bass – especially acoustic bass – and I’ve spent more than a sane person might consider reasonable comparing solid state, tube and class-D amps on just that dimension over the last couple of years, giving me a reference point for evaluating all products. The tightness one sometimes gets with class D can reduce bass to a thinner, percussive strike of the string, as if the player is picking close to the bridge, or someone has tweaked the tone controls all the way up, turning “clean” to “sanitized.” The sonic nature of the bass with the BDA-1 was nothing like this. Instead, I heard air and resolution while those low notes remained true to the instrument’s natural bloom, a very difficult balance; but when you hear it, you know it.
In all areas, the BDA-1 made improvements that make close A-B comparisons simply unnecessary. Percussive details slotted into place, sounding more fixed in the soundstage than before, and the piano took on a glorious palpability that made it seem closer to the real thing – a sound I am used to hearing in the room when my son practices on our piano daily. On Keith Jarrett’s “Standards,” I noticed the use of a pedal to truncate a note where previously that detail had never been noted. Drums sounded more like the real thing than I’ve ever heard in my room. And with the driving atmospheric of Ronnie Earl’s “Blues and Ballads,” I sat transfixed again by the guitar/saxophone interplay between Earl and David “Fathead” Newman. All of this on music I have listened to intently and repeatedly for years, sometimes copping lines to use myself, but now made fresh and almost new to me once more. It seems almost superfluous to say more, but the BDA-1 is close to revelatory in its ability to let music emerge from your digital front-end. The 1992 Columbia Jazz Masterpiece remaster of “Solo Monk” came to life through the Bryston DAC as never before, with more natural reverberation and decay of notes, capturing more realistically Monk’s occasional hard-struck fingering of chords and single notes.
It’s difficult to deconstruct the sound of the BDA-1 with the usual frequency sweep of descriptors. Bass was clear and in proportion, the midrange captured vocals and guitars finely and credibly, and treble was never etched but naturally airy. If I tried to isolate these parts out, it took away from the greatest value of the DAC: its ability to give a real sense of life to the best recordings, and to improve immeasurably the listening pleasure with more typical ones. There was never a case where I thought the Marantz’s sound without the DAC was even close, so obviously improved did music sound when the Bryston was in the loop. And in this, I include the SACD reproduction of the Marantz, one of the main reasons I originally purchased the player. Redbook with the BDA-1 surpassed SACD direct from the Marantz. In that regard, the extra money one pays for the BDA over the Eastern Electric MiniMax is, in my view, money well-spent – the BDA-1 in my rig was just that much better.
I came back from RMAF 2010 having my ears opened to new music from the demo disk put together by Cor Dekker of Musical Reality, which turned me onto Spanish artist Concha Buika, whose Mienteme Bien from the Grammy-nominated album Nina de Fuego, is a heartbreak put to music. Even if you cannot understand a word of Spanish, this music reminds us that human emotions transcend language. The BDA-1 rendered her present in my listening room with an intimacy that caused everyone who heard this track to stop dead and listen.
Just how good is this thing?
As luck would have it, towards the end of my time with the Bryston I had another super-DAC in place, the PS Audio PerfectWave DAC, and I was able to run the Bryston in parallel with the PWD, both fed by the same PS Audio transport. Though I had to use the coaxial connection for the Bryston and the HDMI (or I2S, as PS Audio prefers to call it) for the PWD, thus introducing another variable, once level-matched, I could flip the input selector on my preamp to compare a recording processed by either DAC in real-time.
I don’t want to turn this into a serious shoot-out between DACs but a few points are worth noting. First, the Bryston partners as well with the PS Audio PWT transport as with the Marantz or the Denon; that is to say, it sounded great no matter what was feeding it. Second, any differences between the BDA-1 and the PSA PWD were subtle, significantly less apparent than the effect of putting the Bryston on another player. If anything, the PWD offered a slightly sharper delineation of leading edges and transients, a bit more air on top, and, sometimes, a stronger bass presence. These differences were perceptible only in quick back-and-forth listening between inputs, and there is little chance I could tell which was which just by walking in and listening to one setup or the other. Add into the equation the extra $1k cost for the PWD and you will appreciate the value on offer here. In fact, it is conceivable that some people would prefer the BDA-1 to the PWD in their rigs.
However, the advantage of the PWT over the Marantz, and the reason I remark upon it here, was its ability to read Reference Recordings HRx high-resolution files to feed the Bryston. Dick Hyman’s The Art of Swing has been a new-found staple of my listening sessions this year, and while I won’t be buying too many of the Reference Recordings releases at $45 a pop, I found this to be more than just a reviewing tool, but a truly engaging selection of music that points to the real opportunities of higher resolution music: greater sense of space and more realistic presence of instruments. (Let me point out, though, that people who feel higher resolution means night-and-day improvements over Red Book have not heard Red Book done to its best, as the BDA-1 can do it.) The real point here is that with the PWT feeding the BDA-1, you can get a sense of what is possible and the BDA-1 handled whatever was thrown at it with aplomb, leaving you with little to do but decide on upsampling or not, before enjoying great sound.
In operation the BDA-1 worked flawlessly for me. Once a signal is sent, it locks in, the front display telling you the sampling frequency. There is an optional remote control ($350), which I did not have to hand (and really did not miss). I played with the upsampling function every now and again but nothing else, generally finding that its use gave the music a little more presence in my room, so by default I ended up leaving it on. Others have reported that the upsampling added considerably to the soundstage width and depth, but in my room I can’t say that was true; but clearly, I liked what it did enough to default to using it without feeling a need to second-guess my choice.
Not being a computer audio guy, I did a basic test of the USB input only by feeding it AIFF files from my Mac, and I can report that the BDA-1 showed up clearly in my Mac’s preferences panel and the results were certainly satisfactory if not as good to my ears as the PWT via HDMI or Marantz via SPDIF. I am sure that with proper interfacing one could get very good results. Having only one cable to hand, I cannot comment on how susceptible the Bryston might be to more expensive or recent cables than my old Tara RSC.
If you had told me five years ago that standalone DACs would be back as big news and that I’d be spending serious time auditioning and reviewing several of them, I’d have wondered where the audio world had gone wrong. Not any more. The idea of a standalone DAC with multiple inputs and upgradeable software makes a lot of sense to me now, proving once again that I have no idea what the future holds. Having listened to designs costing from $500 to $3000, I’d say the Bryston BDA-1 is perhaps the best value I’ve heard.
With multiple inputs and software upgradeability, the BDA-1 offers the purchaser a fine piece of equipment now, with the comfort of knowing that you are as close to future-proofed in this fast-moving world as one can be. Yes, it costs nearly $2000 without a cable, but for the price you get sonic results that are unarguably impressive, even when partnered with an old CD player. If I’d known regular CDs could sound this good I’d have never taken steps down the SACD path – that is how strongly I feel this product can improve standard CD sound.
It’s clear to me where the greatest advances in digital audio are being made. On every sonic attribute of importance to a serious listener, the Bryston BDA-1 improved the music in my rig to a level that would make me just sit back and enjoy the results. If I were in the market, this is the DAC that I’d use as the benchmark to beat, but more likely than not, I’d just settle on this and stop looking further, saving my remaining funds for more music. So in answer to the opening question: Yes, you (probably) need a new DAC. Highly recommended.
- PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport and DAC, Marantz SA11-S1, Denon 2900 SACD player; SMcAudio VRE-1 preamp; Spectron Musician 3 Mk 2 Mono amps; Von Schweikert VR5SE speakers; Cables by Elrod, Grover Huffman and PS Audio.
- Dimensions: 17 or 19″ w x 11.25″ d x 1.75″ h
- Weight: 7 lbs
- Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 KHz at -0.1dB
- Signal to noise ratio: Audio Precision AP2700 analyzer FFT digital measurement 140 dB unweighted
- THD plus noise: 0.002%
- IMD: 0.002%
- Jitter: below the measurement capability of the AP2700 analyzer
- Output Level: 2.3V unbalanced; 4.6V balanced
- MSRP: USD2195