Audio Note UK DAC 5 Special preview

What is it that makes us want to refer to something as “Special?”

I’ve heard the word “Special” used pejoratively or sarcastically in relation to my sense of humour and jokes, but in all seriousness it usually carried a more weighty connotation, or inference when I was a kid. “Special” usually meant distinctive, or unique, or rare in some cases. All descriptors I would use in relation to the Audio Note UK DAC5 Special I recently received for review here at AudioStream.

Audio Note UK products are in general “special” due to their bespoke, hand-crafted and built-on-demand nature: no boxes upon boxes at the AN factory in Hove, UK of amplifiers, preamplifiers, CD players, or cables, etc. already built and on hand or “in stock” waiting to be shipped out pro-forma. No, if you want something from Audio Note you have to wait for the order to be received and then built in the order in which it was received – you wait your turn and then it gets tested, bedded-in for a couple days, tested again and then finally meticulously boxed for transport – and it’s been my experience that the wait (sometimes four months) for an Audio Note product has always been worth the time investment.

So, what makes the weighty (50 pounds) DAC 5 Special so special? Well, for starters it doesn’t do DSD64 or DSD128 , DXD, or 24/384 PCM files, in fact it maxes out at 18/96. It doesn’t have a USB connection (Digital RCA input or XLR only) has no over-sampling, no jitter reduction and no noise shaping/filtering or re-clocking of any kind. It uses an older (by modern standards) and no longer available (AN has bought a prodigious amount of stock already and has them squirrelled away) Analogue Devices AD1865 18-Bit (Multi-bit) stereo chip because the design team found it to be the best sounding chip available. Period.

The lack of ubër high-res capability in the DAC, while a non-starter for some, to me matters little as I do 90 per cent of my listening at 16/44 anyway. And I have to say there is a certain poetry in a design that eschews up/oversampling and a conformity to being a slave to playing every type of digital file known to man. Keep it simple. That simplicity, that purposefulness, that focus on doing one type of file format and doing it to the very best of one's ability, is to me, special.

According to AN nomenclature, the DAC 5 Special adheres to “Level 5” specification with Pure Class A operation, Zero negative feedback, Single-Ended circuit topology and valve rectification. It contains “dual-mono power supplies [coupled] to a powerful analogue output stage with NOS 6463 dual triodes coupled with a copper-wired output transformer on 0.1mm AN-Perma 50 double High-B C-cores providing 600R balanced outputs with XLR in addition to the two single-ended silver plated RCA outputs … with a 33:1 step-down ratio.” This allows the output transformer to not only have “an exceptionally-wide frequency response, but also provides excellent isolation between the digital circuitry and power supply.” (The outputs cannot be hooked up simultaneously and can be toggled between via a switch on the unit’s rear panel).

Tantalum film resistors, Black Gate and Cerafine Audio capicitors abound in the circuit path and internal wiring is all Audio Note 99.99 per cent pure silver wire.

Of interest in the manual for the DAC 5 I came across this passage, which I found to be a refreshing take on the importance of what music is: “Music is a time continuum from start to end which when broken is irreparably damaged, and no amount of clever manipulation can restore it to its original time/frequency/amplitude duration or relationship, regardless of what the theorists may tell you. As a result, we have developed a way of excluding or bypassing all these corrective measures, to allow the conversion from digital to analogue to be done without any manipulation whatsoever. All we do is to reformat the data stream to allow the converter chip to be able to interpolate the incoming information correctly.”

“The filter-interface coils/transformers are of the highest possible quality, using 80 per cent nickel Super mu-metal cores with 99.99 per cent pure Audio Note silver wires. The air gaps in the two filter coils per channel are matched across the full frequency range to within 0.1dB of each other.”

The takeaway from all of this is that Audio Note focuses heavily on what happens to the digital signal in the analog domain and it is there that they have spent a huge amount of time, resources, research & development to produce a DAC that, in my estimation, is one of most natural-sounding convertors I’ve ever heard. Peter Qvortrup, head of AN UK, said via email that 200 hours of break-in was the minimum for most of the circuit path’s resistors, caps and cabling, but later added “it may take a bit longer than 200 hours, and it will probably continue for several hundred more hours, just to make your day!”

So far I’ve managed to clock about 150 hours of music through the unit using streaming audio (Tidal, Qobuz, local files and Internet Radio through the night) via an Aurender N10 and can say that it is definitely starting to open up, which is rather daunting, as straight out of the box the level of SQ from the DAC 5 Special was deeply impressive and left me shaking my head at its impact, resolution, warmth and innately human reproduction. Not analog-like, but simply and honestly, analog.

Look for a full review in the near future. Qvortrup has also kindly offered to ship some Audio Note cables to use exclusively with the Special for the review as the AN UK cables were designed specifically to compliment AN UK products. A holistic approach to building a line of products which I wholeheartedly endorse. In the meantime I'm using Tellurium Q Ultra Black XLR, AC and Digital RCA cables with fantastic results.

Thanks for checking in.


Audio Note (UK) Ltd.
Viscount House Units C, D and E Star Road Partridge Green West Sussex RH13 8RA United Kingdom
+44 (0)1273 830800