Totaldac D1-Dual DAC
Input: Asynchronous USB, Coax S/PDIF, Toslink S/PDIF, AES/EBU
Output: RCA (single-ended) or XLR Balanced
Dimensions (H x W x D): DAC - 110mm x 360mm x 290mm. Power Supply - 65mm x 122mm x 180mm
Price: 9,900euros incl VAT in EU, 9,100euros ext VAT out of EU (appx $12,100 US dollars at the time of this review)
A Musical Ladder
The Totaldac D1-Dual DAC does not contain a Delta-Sigma DAC chip as do most DACs on the market today. Rather it employs a discrete R2R ladder DAC using 200 Vishay 0.01% VAR Bulk Metal® Foil resistors per stereo channel (100 per DAC). A R2R ladder DAC is essentially a series of resistors that act as passive switches converting the incoming digital signal to discrete voltages and unlike Delta-Sigma DACs, the ladder DAC does not require the use of a current-to-voltage converter (I/V converter) or a digital filter. The D1-Dual DAC does not employ any upsampling but its designer, Vincent Brient, has included a user-defeatable non-oversampling compensation filter to help correct the high frequency roll off endemic of the R2R DAC design. Now, I'm not one to stand on ceremony or suggest that a given technology is inherently superior to another—it's all in the implementation. I'm essentially a listener and the D1-Dual DAC is one of the finest sounding DACs I've had the pleasure to live with and listen to.
The D1-Dual DAC is as its name suggests is a true fully balanced design all the way through with dual DACs per stereo side. For those potential buyers who cannot accomodate XLR inputs, Totaldac provides a pair of optional XLR to RCA converters (650euros incl VAT in EU, 600euros ext VAT out of EU) so you can still benefit from the fully balanced design since the RCA outputs only utilize one half of the dual DACs per channel. The Dual DAC comes with a host of digital inputs including asynchronous USB from XMOS, two S/PDIF inputs (Coax and Toslink), and an AES/EBU input. All inputs support up to 24/192 playback except the Toslink which maxes out at 96kHz and the D1-Dual DAC is PCM-only, i.e. no DSD.
There's also a 32ohm-600ohm 3.3Vrms max headphone jack mounted around back which makes it a bit awkward to get at. I'll assume this was done in part to keep the Dual DAC's faceplate free of any controls with just a display that you can turn off with the included remote. The remote also let's you select the source, adjust volume, and turn the non-oversampling compensation filter on/off. The power supply comes in its own, separate chassis and both components have to my eyes a very attractive truncated pyramid shape. The Dual DAC comes with a black or silver aluminum faceplate, the review sample sports the latter, and a black chassis. The review sample also came with the Totaldac USB filter/cable (360euros incl VAT in EU, 330euros for 0.25m and 1m).
The D1-Dual DAC also includes a FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) that performs a number of functions. The FPGA has a 10 millisecond input to output delay that's used for re-clocking purposes in order to reduce jitter. The Totaldac's volume control is also implemented in the FPGA using 69-bit resolution.
I sent Vincent Brient a few questions:
1. What would you say are the main advantages of the R2R ladder DAC approach?
It works without oversampling and without 1bit very high frequency switching, it works just at the sampling frequency and when the music level is low only a small part of the components are switching. The switching noise lowers when the music gets lower, up to almost no switching for a music silence.
This R2R configuration allows also to use no digital filtering and almost no analog filtering, so less filter problems.
The R2R results are very limited by the firmware, circuits and components used, only the latest and highest precision components allow to use this technology for high resolution audio and for digital volume control.
2. How do these translate into what we hear?
With this R2R DAC you can hear the silence which is behind the music especially when the recording has a high dynamic range. So it sounds less digital, more natural and lively, people often talk about this silence feeling when they listen to the DAC.
3. Could you provide more information on the filter used in the Totaldac USB filter/cable? What is it filtering?
Have you seen this new page www.totaldac.com/USB_cable-eng.htm?
It filters EMI pollutions which otherwise makes the sound more thin and digital by intermodulation.
Interested buyers can also order the D1-Dual DAC with a variety of options related to using an active crossover for multi-way speaker systems. The Totaldac website goes into some detail on these options so I'll just point you there for more information. Totaldac also offers a D1-Tube DAC, D1-Single DAC, D1-monoblock DAC, D1-Digital Reclocker, D1-Server, and the A1 DAC. We'll also be taking a look and listen to the D1-Server when a review sample is ready. Totaldac is based in France, near Mont-Saint Michelle in the North, and Vincent Brient is the designer and owner. I first heard the Totaldac at the Munich High End Show this year and was very impressed with what I heard. I had an opportunity to meet and speak with Vincent Brient in Munich where we discussed the possibility of this review. There has also been some buzz on line which I will be adding to forthwith.
I mainly listened to the Totaldac with my Pass INT-30A connected with the Kimber Kable Select KS 1126 Balanced ICs, my MacBook Pro mainly using the Totaldac USB cable/filter, all playing through my DeVoer Fidelity The Nines. It's worth stating the obvious sometimes and its worth noting that prospective buyers will want to take into account that Totaldac exists as a one-man operation in France. This means that any servicing would involve sending the unit back to Vincent Brient in France. Totaldac does offer a 10-day in-home trial period so you can test drive their DACs before you commit to a purchase.
Jacob's Ladder DAC
It has been my experience that some components announce themselves with a more distinct voice than others. The D1-Dual DAC pretty much grabbed my attention from the first few notes that sang out from my speakers with what struck me as a natural, almost super-natural, voice. Combined with a level of resolution and clarity that I'm not sure I've heard before from any DAC, this made for one helluva fun review period. One that I wished would never end.
The thing I'd like most to convey about the D1-Dual DAC is what may seem like a contradictory set of values. It is at once fluid, very fully voiced in terms of a lovely and rich timbral palette, while also delivering a truly amazing level of detail. Even though I almost hate to say it, I heard things, important musical things, from recordings I thought I knew all too well that I've never heard before. Things like drum sticks hitting cymbals and the resultant rush of sound where the distinction between these events was conveyed with an uncanny exactness that I've heard get completely lost with other DACs. It's as if the Totaldac is able to pull more musical information from the sound file and deliver it in a more exacting manner while also sounding completely natural and without stripping away one ounce of tonal character. And that's pretty special in my experience.
This combination of strengths made CD-quality recordings sound absolutely stunning. As good as I've ever heard them sound and higher resolutions were even more impressive. I compared a CD rip of Jimmy Scott's wondrous All The Way with the 24/192 version from HDtracks and the latter sounded more fluid, silkier, with greater separation between the various voices delivering Jimmy Scott as a solid, stable, and distinct singer placed in my room with real presence. Stunningly so. You can get a very real sense of his every inflection, breath, and perhaps most uncannily of all his amazing phrasing which is a time-based phenomena that the D1-Dual DAC nails as fully as I've heard. The relationship between the different musicians is also portrayed in a lifelike manner where lessor DACs congeal and confuse this distinction with a blurring of the overall sound image. Players seem to coalesce into one another for a more homogenous sound whereas the D1-Dual DAC delivers greater separation, voice, and difference. Just like in real life.
The D1-Dual DAC makes listening to all manner of recorded music exciting. You can grab firmly onto the performance and hear into what the players are doing with a seemingly boundless amount of musical information at the ready. This uncanny sense of resolution also makes the Totaldac a master at portraying scale. The relationship of smaller, quieter sounds to larger, louder sounds is about as lifelike as I've heard from a DAC and we have to also point to the Totaldac's supremely quiet operation as a contributing factor in this regard. I've spoken before about how components have an internal logic and some DACs can make music sound much larger than life where the range of soft to loud seems to get compressed. The Totaldac delivered as finely nuanced a sound image in terms of size and scale as I've heard. You could say it is at once delicate and forceful and the transition between the two is handled in a completely natural manner. Early Bob Dylan from CD rips, FKA twigs new EP2, Tom Waits, King Midas Sound, Juliane Banse & Andras Schiff Songs of Debussy & Mozart, Sonic Youth, The Doors, The Quartetto Italiano playing Beethoven's late string quartets, and on and on and on were all sit down and just listen and get lost engaging for as long as time allowed.
If we dive into particulars, the Totaldac delivers big bad (as in good) bass, a very lush and ripe midrange, and delicate and sweet highs. I did try taking the compensation filter in and out of the picture and there was a very subtle difference between the two. I'd be hard pressed to tell you which was which with certain recordings but I did notice a skosh more sheen to cymbals and more light shining on upper frequencies with it engaged. I preferred it in. I also used the Totaldac's volume control for the majority of this review and it did not cause any sonic issues that I could hear. Of course whether or not one needs a preamplifier in the mix is based on what other source components you have as well as personal preference. But if you are looking for a DAC that can also handle volume seamlessly, the Totaldac fits the bill.
I compared the Totaldac to the Auralic Vega (see review). The Vega strikes me as another DAC that offers up superb detail yet in comparison to the Totaldac with PCM playback it sounded a bit processed and not as fully voiced in terms of tonal complexity. The Totaldac edges out the Vega playing back PCM data with a more natural and fluid sound and it even digs deeper into the recording. And that's an impressive feat I've only heard a small number of other DACs accomplish including the MSB The Analog DAC (see review) which also happens to be a R2R ladder DAC and the Meitner MA-2 (see review). And that's some mighty fine company indeed. With the Auralic Vega playing back DSD, the gap between it and the Totaldac closes somewhat and here's the interesting thing—the Totaldac in my experience closes the gap between PCM and DSD the tightest of the DACs I've heard here. Or to look at it another way, in my experience less costly DACs offer up some impressive performance when playing back DSD, equalling more expensive DACS playing back PCM. The other DACs I just rattled off also play back DSD and if I have one wish list item for the Totaldac it would be a checkmark next to DSD.
Of course you can convert DSD files to PCM on the fly using a media player like Audirvana but I don't see the point. If I owned a Totaldac, I'd stick to PCM as I did play back a few DSD files converted to 176.4 PCM using Audirvana and I did not notice any sonic advantage over straight PCM. This may be due to how well the D1-Dual DAC handles PCM which is pretty damn exceptional.
One functional quirk, at least in my book, is when headphones are connected the analog outputs are still active. The mute control on the remote mutes both outputs so when listening to headphones you will also be playing music through your speakers and the volume control on the remote controls both. I did not spend much time listening to the headphones since my rack is farther from my listening seat as my headphone cable is long but through my Audio Technica ATH-W1000s, the same sonic traits I've described for the XLR outputs more or less applied here as well. But since my headphones are not of the noise canceling variety, I still heard the faint echo of the same music coming through my speakers.
The Totaldac USB filter/cable
I compared the Totaldac USB filter/cable to the Light Harmonic Lightspeed USB cable and there was a subtle difference most notably the Totaldac cable offered up a more fluid and relaxed sound. By comparison, the Lightspeed cable made things sound a bit aggressive up top and also didn't provide as stable and solid a sound picture. The Totaldac cable added that last bit of refined, nuanced, and natural flow. I'd imagine most Totaldac owners will want to buy into the complete Totaldac approach, cable and all.
I tethered up my Leben CS-300XS using the Totaldac-supplied XLR to RCA adaptors and my Auditorium 23 interconnects to see how well this pairing would get along. The first word that came to mind was exquisite. Here, the Leben adds a fuller tonal presentation as compared to the Pass and when combined with the Totaldac's uncanny clarity, you end up with a presentation that sounds so natural, so life-like, it leads you directly to the music being played with very little reminder that you are in fact listening through a hi-fi. Especially with acoustic music, the sound of plucked and bowed strings or the weighty voice of piano ring out with life-like precision. For another analogy, its as if the Totaldac shines a brighter light on the performance, bringing even the subtlest details of playing into a sharper and more natural sense of focus. Stunning.
Back in Totaldac
I spent a number of weeks, days and nights, just listening to the Totaldac. I even took an extra week just to make sure I had things right (and for completely selfish reasons related to pure enjoyment) and I believe I do. With PCM data, the Totaldac D1-Dual DAC is one of the finest sounding DACs I've had the pleasure to live with. It is at once natural sounding, dynamically realistic, effortlessly fluid, tonally complex, and it portrays a very solid and life-like sound image for you to explore. Add to that an absolutely astounding sense of clarity and you have yourself one helluva impressive and above all else one helluva musical DAC.
Also on hand and in use during the Totaldac D1-Dual DAC review: Auralic Vega