Audioengine D1 24-Bit DAC
Input: (1) S/PDIF TosLink (24-bit/192kHz), (1) USB (24-bit/96kHz)
Output: (1) pair RCA, (1) 3.5mm headphone
Dimensions: 3.5 x 4 x 1"
Weight: 1.0lbs (0.5kg)
Availability: Online and through Authorized Dealers
The Audioengine D1 DAC is the latest product from a company whose products I would describe as no nonsense in a hobby not exactly famous for no nonsense. I ran into Audioengine co-founders Brady Bargenquast and Dave Evans earlier this month at their booth in the South Hall of CES 2012 and when they asked what I thought about a certain DAC, I began to describe in standard audiophile-speak its sonic merits and demerits. I believe it was when the word "resolute" left my lips that I saw the most obvious signs of fatigue weigh down on them like the prospect of Sisyphus' boulder sitting once again at the bottom of that big-ass hill.
The Audioengine D1 is the Audioengine wired DAC priced at $169 and there's also a wireless DAC, the D2 which comes in at $599 (I have one of these here as well, review coming soon). The wired D1 DAC offers a 24-bit/96kHz input via USB and a 24-bit/192kHz input via optical Toslink. If you decide to use the latter, you'll still need to connect that USB port to your computer or to a USB power adapter (Audioengine sells one for $18.00) since the D1 gets its power from the USB input. On the front side of the D1 DAC you'll find a power LED indicator that doubles as the on/off button and lights up when the D1 is on/receiving, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a volume control knob.
Around back in addition to the above-mentioned USB and Toslink inputs you'll also find a pair of RCA outputs. If you use the USB input no drivers are required and if your computer has a USB 2.0 port or you have a MacBook Pro or soundcard with Toslink out, you'll be playing up to 24-bit/96kHz in no time without the need to install any drivers. For 24/192 capable soundcards on Windows PCs, you'll need to install drivers because Windows does not support USB Audio Class 2.0.
Packed into the tiny but handsome package with its black matte end caps and dark gray metal body, sits the AKM4396 DAC, CS8416 Toslink receiver, TI1020B USB controller and a TI NE5532 op amp amplifying the headphone output. The USB circuit is run in adaptive mode which means the D1 receives its clocking signal from your computer as opposed to Asynchronous mode USB that sits the clock in the DAC, more or less. The entire D1 package includes a 2' USB cable and a Microfiber bag to keep your D1 warm at night and safe on trips.
Some feel Adaptive-mode USB is more prone to jitter and therefore will not sound as good as an Asynchronous USB implementation but this idea does not gel with my experience. In other words, there is no direct correlation between sound quality and the USB mode used in a DAC. In theory all kinds of things are nice and simple. In practice not so much unless you believe that you should select hi-fi equipment according to how much you enjoy listening to music through it as opposed to the theories behind its execution in which case you'll save yourself a lot of unnecessary grief.
How Good Can A 1lb. DAC Be?
The Audioengine D1 sounds all of its $169 asking price and in my experience and opinion it also sounds pleasantly and surprisingly more than a bit more. I used the D1 DAC with my MacBook Pro running Pure Music (v1.85) as well as BitPerfect and connected to it via Toslink and USB with an AudioQuest Carbon USB cable as well as an AudioQuest Forest USB cable which makes more sense from a price-perspective. On the receiving end of the D1's output sat the Leben CS-300SX integrated amplifier connected to my DeVore Fidelity The Nines.
Other DACs on hand and used in and out of the same system during the D1's residence included the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC, Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, Rein Audio X-DAC, Wavelength Brick, Wavelength Proton, Logitech Squeezebox Touch, and the Ayre QB-9. I mention this list and associated equipment for those wondering about such things. For those wondering if the Audioengine D1 DAC is better than the $2,750 Ayre QB-9 let me put your curiosity to rest and say no, it isn't.
If you prefer a fat, rich and saturated sound as opposed to lean, fast and resolute you'll enjoy the Audioengine D1 DAC. If you listen to 16/44 ripped CDs that are not audiophile-grade recordings, you'll enjoy the D1 DAC. If you stream music from services like MOG or Spotify you'll enjoy the D1 DAC. And I say this because fat, rich and saturated makes less-than-ideal recordings and streaming sources sound just fine and fun to listen to. DACs and other gear that lean towards lean, fast and resolute push a listener toward higher quality recordings because less-than-ideal can sound harsh and grating. Some audiophiles call this "accurate".
In terms of input preferences, I leaned toward USB mainly because I enjoyed listening to everything I played through it and I appreciate a simple setup and using a USB cable to power the D1 and Toslink for audio seems like a waste of cable. Besides, the MacBook Pro's Toslink output is limited to 24-bit/96kHz so the only real gain is one of preference. Certainly you could make the argument that Toslink offers better isolation from computer-generated noise that can travel on the USB bus, thus reducing jitter. And I wouldn't disagree in theory. In practice, enjoyment trumps theory.
Comparative Wrestling and Audio Weight Class
I suppose I should point out the negative sonic qualities of the Audioengine USB D1 DAC especially seeing how I was so hard on the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II. As a matter of fact, some readers felt I was too hard on the V-DAC II especially given its price. The problem with this point of view becomes evident when you compare it directly to a DAC that costs less than half its asking price. Like the D1 DAC. Of course the V-DAC II offers additional inputs and outputs and a sonic signature that some listeners may prefer over the D1 DAC. And there are DACs that cost less than the D1 like the recently released and similar looking HRT HeadStreamer ($139.95) which I have not yet heard. But in theory, if the lower the price the less critical we should be, does that mean that the least expensive DAC is beyond criticism? (the answer is no, just in case you had to think about it).
If the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II is "a tad under-ripe" which is what I said and what I still feel to be the case, then the Audioengine D1 DAC is a tad over-ripe. A bit richer than real. For those with a highly resolving system and lots of high definition recordings, you may find the D1 DAC to be a bit dark sounding, not as lit up up top. Not as sparkly and perhaps you'll even notice an overall sameness to the sound as compared to more refined presentations. Where this is most noticeable is on larger, complex acoustic orchestral music where things get a bit congested due to a lack of differentiation. Instrument's varied voices are not as varied as they can be. Here, the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II pulls things apart for sonic inspection more so due to its emphasis on edge. Is one better than the other? Yes, the one you prefer.
Another aspect of the Audioengine D1 DAC that goes into my plus column is its way with bass which is pleasantly plump and impact-full. It is by no stretch thin-sounding which runs counter to a few audiophile theoretical cliches including price (cliche: inexpensive stuff sounds thin) and power supply (cliche: only stuff with beefy power supplies can offer phat bass). If I were to generalize further I'd say the D1 DAC offers a more physical sound as opposed to a headier one; body versus mind, more balls than brains.
If you choose to use the D1 DAC as a headphone amp connected to your computer, I tried this setup with my iMac and Audio-Technica ATH-W1000s, you're in for a real treat. Compared to plugging your headphones directly into your computer and using its internal DAC, the D1 sounds like music while the computer sounds like three week old unrefrigerated chopped liver smells. For those with lots of frequent flyer miles, the D1 would make a nice, simple, and lightweight travel companion. Unfortunately the D1 does not work with the Apple Camera Connection Kit so you cannot tether it to your iPad in this manner.
I also snuck into our daughter's room and borrowed their Audioengine A2 powered speakers for a day while they were away at school (I'm not saying whose pair I borrowed to avoid teenage wrath). Running the iMac's audio out to the D1s USB in and then out through a pair of RCAs to the A2s was again a significant step up in sound quality from direct connecting the A2s to the iMac. Bigger, badder (in a good way) with bass that demanded getting the tiny A2s up off the desktop otherwise I would have drowned in it. This setup represents a lot of desktop musical fun for a total audio system price of $369 + cables.
For those home theater 2.0 types or disk owners who still want to occasionally spin instead of rip, you can connect your disk player or any other audio source with Toslink out like Apple TV to the D1 DAC. My Oppo OPDV971H player happens to be so endowed and the D1 DAC offered a pleasant and weighty upgrade to the player's stock sound.
The Unbearable Lightness of Enjoyment
If it isn't already obvious I need to brush up on my writing skills and add that I very much enjoyed the Audioengine D1 DAC. After it has a chance to settle in (I'd guess about 20 hours or so before which it can sound a bit hard) I would recommend feeding it anything and everything your music library and the big streaming service in the sky has to offer. I did and I wasn't nearly as disappointed by what it doesn't do as much as I enjoyed what it does. And considering its price, I'd call that an uphill battle won.