Halide Design DAC HD
Input: 1 USB cable, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz (up to 24 bits)
Output: 1 pair RCA
Dimensions: total length including USB cable, DAC, and RCA cable - 2 meters standard, other lengths available (3 meter + $20, 5 meter +$60, 7 meter +$100)
Availability: through Authorized Dealers and Direct Online (shipping second half of November 2011)
Sometimes What Works On Paper...
A true Asynchronous USB DAC using Wavelength's Streamlength software capable of handling 24 bit/96kHz for $550? Including cables?
The Halide Design DAC HD evolved from their devilsound DAC. While the devilsound was of the non-oversampling variety, the new HD adds the Wolfson WM8716 to get you to 24/96 so you can play your music at its native resolution (up to 96kHz) or upsample to that same limit, your choice. You'll also see from the pictures that the diminutive HD DAC gets its power from the USB Bus which may give some cause for concern in terms of noise transferred from your noisy computer. Halide has done a few things to the power supply in the DAC HD, on paper and in practice, to address these concerns and more. From the Halide website:
"Most of the components in the circuit can run of 4.5 V or less, so this can be derived from the 5V USB power line. The USB power is filtered through separate LC filters for the Analog DAC supply, the positive Analog output supplies, the digital supply (3.3V), and the clock supply (3V), to minimize any power cross-talk between the various circuit components.
For the output circuitry, a negative supply is needed. A -5 V signal is generated with a MAX889S, and further CLC filtered and down-regulated to -4.5V. In total, the DAC HD contains 8 independent voltage regulators, for optimal performance."
The attached USB cable is a custom version of the Wireworld Starlight USB cable (a 1M Wireworld Starlight USB cable is $89) which among other things isolates power from data, "The Starlight runs the power separately from the data lines, and features full coaxial shielding around the power lines to minimize cross talk. In addition, the flat geometry of the datalines allows for a clean, controlled 90-ohm impedance, allowing the cable to run a full 7 meters without repeater electronics." Coming out of the other end of the DAC which is encased in black annodized laser-engraved aluminum (and measures appx. 2 1/2 x 1 1/4 x 5/8") are a pair of solid silver analog RCA cables terminated with Eichmann silver bullet plugs.
The DAC HD runs Wavelength's Streamlength firmware which delivers asynchronous USB with reportedly very low levels of jitter and that Wolfson WM8716 is programmed to run its slow roll-off filter which Halide claims "results in a much more natural sound than the standard 'fast roll-off' interpolation filter more commonly used in digital audio, even when the fast roll-off filters were apodizing or minimum phase." I confirmed the operating method (asynchronous) and bit/sample rates (24 bit, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz) using a USB prober utility and yes, everything checked out as per paper. I'll also confirm that the DAC HD is a truly plug and play device as it comes with everything you need to plug it in on both ends. In terms of playing, software setup will depend on your platform and media player of choice. Here I'll refer you to Wavelength Audio's www.usbdacs.com website for detailed setup advice for Windows and Mac.
Resolution That'll Make Your Heart Sing
While I appreciate and enjoy Halide's in-depth description into their design and working process, I have to say I completely fell for the DAC HD's voice from the first notes played through it. The DAC HD does a remarkable (and I mean that literally) job of unraveling music without turning it into a specimen. It struck me initially as offering a wonderfully balanced presentation between a truly stunning amount of musical clarity/resolution which is something all digital can do and some (most?) over-does, and tone which some digital seems to leave behind. After listening longer I remain struck by these same qualities.
Beethoven's late string Quartets as offered up by the Quartetto Italiano strike me as oh so Italiano (I mean that in the best possible sense) and all of their swinging, swaying and most importantly swaggering comes through in rosin-exploding flourish with the Halide DAC HD. Tom Waits' crushingly sad, at least to me, track "I'm Still Hear" from Alice comes across as crushingly sad and his piano sound which sounds as if it was mic'd right up against the soundboard threatens to overload everything and Dawn Harms' faint and wispy violin blowing in the background sets the stage perfectly for Waits' gravel-infected yearning along with the only there at the last minute heartstring pulling cello of Matt Brubeck and Colin Stetson's clarinet. Jimmy Scott's superbly controlled vocals on "Every Time We Say Goodbye" from his must-have album "All The Way" feels like honey, as it should. I could go on and on but I think you get the point which is the DAC HD delivers every high point on my must-do check list. Its voice tracks very closely to the way I feel music should feel.
Let's be clear, every piece of hi-fi gear is voiced by its designer(s). Even if we pretend we're shooting for some Platonic ideal, in the end choices are made and reality intrudes on paper-perfect plans. As listeners, we also have our pie-in-the-sky ideals and sets of rules and regulations we attempt to enforce upon the listening experience. Some audiophiles seem to wear their perpetual disappointment with the mismatch between ideal and reality as a badge of honor. I'm perfectly content to take things as they are and accept the simple fact that some gear speaks more to my ideals than others. Some presentations are capable of reaching past self-imposed intellectual roadblocks.
Here's a trick I use for critical listening—I listen to music that I have a strong emotional connection to and if the gear under review can't deliver that emotional connection that gear isn't for me. To my way of thinking, this is the single best test when used judiciously. By that I mean you can't expect to be moved whenever. You need to be free from distraction and that can be a difficult state to get to these days.
Sometimes, and this is more the exception than the rule, a piece of gear's way with music will draw you into the music regardless. No matter the circumstance or the music it just grabs you. The Halide DAC HD has proven to be one of those rare instances for me—I just want to throw more music and more time at it so it can reciprocate in kind and completely distract me with music. Is it perfect? I think we all know that's a silly question.