T+A DAC 8 DSD
Input: USB, 4x Coax S/PDIF (RCA), 1x Toslink, 1x Coax S/PDIF (BNC), 1x AES/EBU
Output: 1x Coax S/PDIF (RCA), unbalanced RCA, balanced XLR
Dimensions 9.5 x 27 x 27 cm
Weight: 4 kg
Availability: through authorized dealers
Skip The Bits
"Hey, you put DSD in my DAC! You put DAC in my DSD!" The buzz surrounding the T+A DAC 8 DSD is all about octuple-rate DSD; DSD512 (512 times that of CD)/22.5792 MHz. The idea being you use Signalyst's HQPlayer software to convert all of your music to DSD512 before sending it to the DAC 8 so that the latter's "True One Bit DSD Converter" can work its magic. Yea, magic.
The DSD buzz began about 5 years ago, reaching its first zenith at RMAF 2011. Since then, many naysayers have scoffed at DSD, pointing to the lack of content, i.e. music, released in the format. There's also the sticky wicket of PCM (DXD) creeping into the DSD process whenever you want to, you know, do some post-processing. Others question the basic claim that DSD material sounds better, resting their tech specs on DSD64 so they can conveniently point to DSD's supposed shortcomings north of 22kHz. Sigh.
As with most arguments, this arguing completely misses the point and that point is—DSD can sound fantastic. As Tyler said to Roach after he said surfing was more exhilarating than sex in the original (and much better) Point Break, "Maybe you're not doing it right, Roach."
The T+A DAC 8 offers two completely separate signal paths for PCM and DSD. PCM takes the bit-train trolley through a "quadruple arrangement with eight 32-bit converters from Burr-Brown in a double symmetrical circuit." Users can opt between 4 T+A-developed digital filters; Bezier interpolation, Bezier/IIR, a standard FIR filter, and a short FIR filter. From T+A:
All 4 filters were developed in-house, including even the standard FIR filter. All of the filters are programmed into our high speed oversampling processing engine, which uses deeper registers / calculations than available OEM chipsets, which our design team feels make both of the FIR filters a bit more accurate than commonly available options, albeit still with the known pre-and-post impulse behavior of all FIR filters.
Noise, another digital bugaboo for the technically narrow-minded, is addressed in part by galvanic isolation of the digital section from the analog section, "...using extremely fast digital isolators made by Silicon Labs in the DAC 8 DSD. The result is to prevent any interference from the source devices finding its way into the analogue section. Computers, in particular, generate enormous levels of interference noise which would ruin the superior sound qualities of the audiophile output stage without this measure."
The DAC 8 is loaded with digital inputs, while offering single-ended and balanced output and a headphone amp/jack up front. As with every piece of kit that I've ever seen from T+A, the DAC 8 is beautifully built, sandwiching a matte black chassis between two sheets of appropriately-thick aluminum. The unit weighs in at a convincingly hefty 8.8 pounds.
There are a series of buttons up front including power, input selection, phase, PCM filter options, volume up/down, and "Wide Mode". What what? "Wide Mode"?
The frequency limit of the DAC 8 DSD’s analogue reconstruction filter can be switched between 60 kHz and 120 kHz; the "ultra-wide" 120 kHz setting is the key to perfect frequency response and phase characteristics when used with power amplifiers with a broad-band output—such as those in the T+A range. The phase linearity and signal fidelity of the "ultra-wide" circuit also has a perceptible effect in the audible range, and allows an open sound image with phenomenally clear positioning and ultra-lively dynamics.Well, we'll just have to see about that!
Associated gear for this review included my reference system; sonicTransporter i5 running Roon Server/Core, microRendu/UpTone Audio UltraCap LPS-1 power supply, totaldac d1-six DAC, Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp, DeVore gibbon X, Tellurium Q Black cables with all audio powered stuff plugged into an AudioQuest Niagara 1000.
I also have the Sound Galleries SGM server here for review which runs Roon and HQPlayer so I used it to send the DAC 8 nothing but DSD512.
The Sum Of All
The T+A DAC 8 is one very fine sounding DAC. It is so fine sounding, that I could easily live with it forever. And I say this whether its sent music in all of its varying original resolutions or just DSD512. That being said, if you want to hear the T+A DAC 8 at its best, get yourself HQPlayer and send it nothing but DSD512.
Let's talk native playback first since we cannot expect everyone who owns a DAC 8 to use HQPlayer. Using my reference rig, the DAC 8 played all of my music and all of the music I ingest daily from Tidal HiFi with aplomb. There was no digital edginess, no digital flatness, while there was natural ease, nice tone color, wonderful control from bottom to top, and a general "what shall I play and enjoy next-" ness.
I recently discovered that Tom Waits' Blue Valentine was not in my digital deck; either owned or Tidal. WTF? And I say WTF for a few reasons but mainly because that means I haven't thought about listening to Blue Valentine in years. WTF? So I pulled out the LP and listened while I hunted down the digital download (I found & bought it from Qobuz). Waits' cover of Somewhere from West Side Story pulls at my heartstrings, even more so after all these years of abstinence. With the DAC 8, the opening strings sing cinematically and when Waits' gravel comes in the contrast is startling and damn well sad. His first whispered "somewhere" conveying all of the hope/hopelessness that word can convey.
With digital replay, nuance is often the thing that goes missing. Nuance can get glossed over, literally, making music harder-sounding than it is, an unnatural sheen hardening music's softer edges, lulling some listeners into a false sense of detail. This kind of sound can sound like "wow" at first, but I find it often grates on my ears soon thereafter. The more insidious kind of digital noise may take weeks to creep into consciousness but once it does, it never, ever, goes away. The DAC 8 lived and played in-Barn for weeks on end and never once irritated or called itself into question.
I mated the AudioQuest NightHawk, my favorite 'phones, to the DAC 8 and was greeted with a nice, deep, warm, organic sound. While I'm not inclined to shut out the world so forcefully, headphone enthusiasts should be well served by the DAC 8. I also connected the DAC 8 to the Ayre's balanced input #2, which is set for Pass Through mode (although why anyone in their right mind would want to bypass the Ayre's volume control is beyond me), and the DAC 8 didn't suck at controlling volume. Of course, this kind of thing, how well a preamp/DAC will mate with your amp is about as clear cut as how well misty666xoxo from Zoosk will mate with your mother.
So yea; if you're looking to buy a DAC in the $4k and above ballpark, and you own lots of music in all flavors and you want to listen to it and enjoy it, you should listen to the T+A DAC 8. If you want to take its wonderful performance to another level, like past 11, introduce the DAC 8 to HQPlayer and nothin' but DSD.
I have to be careful. Talking about and focusing on HQPlayer and DSD512 while ignoring the Sound Galleries SGM server would be a silly, misleading mistake because the SGM does not sound like the other servers I've listened to (and even they don't sound like each other). So the extent to which the DAC 8 surpassed my reference rig's (sonicTransporter/microRendu) performance is not solely due to HQPlayer and DSD512. The annoying part, for me and I'd imagine for you too, is that I cannot, at present, separate the two because I do not have another machine in-Barn that can run HQPlayer at DSD512 and Roon.
Since some readers will think something like "I can build something much better for under a grand" while others will feel that "The SGM will offer an approximation of a less expensive server so let's have it", it makes perfect sense to dig in.
Joe Surdna reminded me to listen to Jackie Lynn, Holy Fohr of Circuit des Yeux's country persona record. I happen to love Fohr's voice which is in full sway as Jackie Lynn. What happens to her voice when sent through the SGM and HQPlayer's digital filtered magic?
Her voice becomes more touching. It touches me more. There's more focus, body, weight, texture, and nuance. Sent bits as such, the T+A DAC 8 approaches the best DACs I've heard; "best" meaning the DACs that bring me the most enjoyment, the most engaging connection to my music. I'm talking mostly about an emotional connection that goes beyond reproduction, moving into the realm of production.
While the totaldac d1-six remains my all-time favorite music-maker, the T+A, when fed nothing but DSD512 from the SGM server, moves into the same arena of reproduction. All digital barriers to entry are removed, providing a clean, clear, path to the performance. In my experience, the other DAC that betters the T+A is the dCS Rossini, putting this little magic 8 into some very fine company. In deed. "Wide Mode" through the Ayre (with a rated Frequency Response of DC - 250 kHz) seemed to improve on the already fairly stunning sense of dimensionality and liquidity of DSD512.
In DSD-only mode, every single piece of music sent to the DAC 8 flows out of my system and into the barn's air equally effortlessly, as it does with my totaldac. Where the d1-six pulls out ahead is in terms of ultimate clarity and a superlative sense of touch and voice. The totaldac simply brings me that much closer, that much more connected, that much more engaged with the performance. But let's be clear—I'm not talking a game of miles, I'm talking about a game of inches. Important, meaningful inches, but lacking a direct A/B, who's going be the wiser?
I'll also go out on a limb and suggest that with any capable server, HQPlayer/DSD512 will offer an improvement over sending the DAC 8 your music in its native resolution. You can call this an educated guess, a deduction, an extrapolation, or flat-out fancy. Seeing as the DAC 8 does so well with PCM, the only question is—how much better?
A Magical 8
I got to hear the T+A DAC 8 DSD/HQPlayer/SGM server, albeit an earlier incarnation, combination in Munich last year. While impressive, this system/room/music didn't quite grab me. Now, mixed in with my favorite bits in-Barn, the T+A grabbed me, shook me (well that was actually the music's domain), and didn't let go. Consider the DAC 8 DSD highly recommended for a very long term audition of your music's guts and glory.
Also in-use during the DAC 8 review: totaldac d1-six, Sound Galleries SGM server