Emotiva XDA-2 USB DAC/Digital Preamp/Headphone Amp

Device Type: USB Digital to Analog Converter, digital preamp, headphone amp
Input: 2 Coax, 2 Toslink, 1 USB, 1 AES/EBU
Output: 1 pair RCA, 1 pair XLR, 1/8" headphone jack
Dimensions : 17” W x 2.25” H x 14” D
Weight: 10.5 lbs (unboxed)
Availability: online direct
Price: $399.00
Website: www.emotiva.com

One look at the Emotiva XDA-2 DAC/Digital Preamp/Headphone Amp and you may ask yourself—I wonder how much that costs? And when you learn that the answer is a dollar shy of $400, you may think "Wow" or you may think, "Wait, what does it do?". Price perception is similar to depth perception in that's its all about ones' point of view. While anyone that's been shopping for a DAC lately will more than likely be impressed by the XDA-2s package, what it does is play music and how well it does this one job will tell you most everything you need to know about its value.

The Emotiva XDA-2 can function as digital preamplifer as well as a 24/192-capable DAC and headphone amp. Its analog resistor ladder volume control adjusts in 0.25dB steps which can be controlled from the faceplate controls or the included and very hefty milled aluminum remote. Inside we find the Cmedia CM6631 asynchronous USB receiver, Analog Devices AD1955 multi-bit delta-sigma DAC, an Analog Devices AD1896 asynchronous sample rate converter, and a pair of TI's OPA2134 Op amps. There are a total of six 24/192-capable inputs including two Coax S/PDIF, two Toslink, asynchronous USB, AES/EBU and dual differential XLR and RCA output stages.

You can choose to have the XDA-2 upsample incoming data to 24/96 using the "SRC BYPASS" button on the remote and while I tred this both ways, in and out, I did not notice an appreciable difference. The remote also allows you to turn the XDA-2 on, put the unit in standby mode (the main power switch is on the unit's backside), mute, dim but never completely turn off the blue light show on the XDA-2's faceplate, control the volume, and select your source. The XDA-2 's 1/8" headphone output offers a low 0.1 ohm output impedance for driving even the most demanding loads.

Since the Emotiva XDA-2 can handle up to 24/192 data (the XDA-2 does not accept 24/176.4 data), Windows users need to download and install the free Emotiva drivers to make full use of this functionality. Mac users are good to go. The XDA-2's display will show you the volume level for a few seconds when you adjust it, the SRC Bypass mode for a few seconds when you change it, and it defaults to showing the sample rate of the music you're playing or the volume level if you aren't playing anything. The milled aluminum faceplate also houses the same controls as the remote minus the SRC Bypass option. Emotiva also throws in free shipping for the XDA-2, a 30-day money back guarantee, and a five year transferable warranty.

Using the XDA-2 was simply a matter of connecting it, I used the USB input for the duration of the review, and I mainly used the XDA-2's XLR output into my Pass INT-30A as an amp-only using the XDA-2s volume control. Audirvana Plus told me that the XDA-2 will not work with "Direct Mode" so I had to first disable this option in Audirvana's preferences before the XDA-2 would play music. Once I did, it did.

A Nice Package
There's no debating that the Emotiva XDA-2 delivers a lot of physical bang for your hard-earned buck. Its full-size if slim chassis is very nicely made, it offers 24/192 playback, an analog volume-controlled digital preamp, a headphone amp, single-ended and balanced outputs, and a remote that can be used as a tactical weapon in close combat. All for four hundred bucks. I have a hunch its full-sized chassis may be viewed as a drawback for those people looking for a nice, small, desktop DAC/headphone amp and peaking inside one does wonder if some of that vacant real estate could be swapped for a more desktop-friendly form-factor. But lets not quibble over looks since we all know beauty is in the ears of the beholder.

Sound. That's how I'd describe the XDA-2. It's sound. There's nothing about its presentation that sticks out and calls attention to itself which means the XDA-2 is doing its job. What the XDA-2 gives you it does so with an even hand making the XDA-2 easy to listen to and easy to like. While I've heard more resolution and greater dynamic snap, overall a more lively and engaging presentation, this typically comes at a price, namely more money. When you compare what you get from say the Halide DAC HD, which I thoroughly enjoyed, you may get the feeling you're getting less for more.

And I can't really argue that point and my guess is the Emotiva's full-size chassis is meant to convey just that. However, when it comes to listening, which I do in the dark and even with my eyes closed sometimes, its how a piece of hi-fi performs that matters. And here, I found the XDA-2 a bit too easy on the ears. A bit too laid back. There's a presence aspect to music playback where the XDA-2 comes up just a few shades short. I'd point to a slight graying of tone colors, a polite top end, and a lack of sharp transient attack as the main culprits. Something like Richard Goode with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra playing Mozart's Piano Concertos loses some of the distinction between the voice of the piano and the various voices of the chamber orchestra.

While the Audioquest Dragonfly will give you more resolution and edge, you'll also get a less full-bodied sound, only one USB input, and a lot less chassis (and no deadly remote). The Parasound Zdac is also brighter sounding in a good way but its limited to 24/96 over USB, does not offer the preamp functionality of the XDA-2, and costs $475. So we're talking about personal listening preferences along with different prices and feature sets, when aren't we?, and what I'm trying to convey is that the Emotiva XDA-2 is a damn-good sounding DAC but I've heard other DACs that cost less like the Dragonfly that grabbed my attention in a different way, and DACs that cost more like the Halide that held my musical attention more.

When using headphones, the volume control automatically switches control to the headphone output. When you switch back to speaker listening, the volume control switches back. It also remembers your previous settings for both which is a very nice feature. I used my trusty Audio Technica ATH-W1000s to checkout the XDA-2s headphone amp and was very pleasantly greeted by some very similar sound—full-bodied and well-controlled. There was also that lack of sparkle, a lack of shimmer from cymbals or bite from a trumpet that grabs your attention even when you may not be paying as much as you should.

When is good, good enough?
When good gets you into the music its good enough, especially when we're dealing with reality and budgets. The Emotiva XDA-2 offers a lot of musical goodness for the money wrapping up a full-bodied and nicely balanced-sounding DAC, preamp, and headphone amp in a package you'll be proud to show off.

Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the XDA-2 review: Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC, Teac UD-501, Parasound Zdac, Metrum Acoustics Hex

WLVCA's picture

You noted that you had the Teac UD501 on hand while reviewing the XDA-2.

Did you compare the two DAC's?

Wondering which you liked more for non-DSD files - 16/44, 24/96, 24/192.

Thanks very much.



Michael Lavorgna's picture

...I prefer the Teac although I do have to point out that the Teac is more than twice the price of the Emotiva.

jvlata's picture

To bad you can not complete turn off those annoying blue light..

labjr's picture

The manufacturer's comments seem over-enthusiastic.

Since when does lots of features in a rack-sized case make an "audiophile" product better?

And what's wrong with computer streaming music? From everything I've read, it's the best sounding way to listen. So why would I want any other inputs in an "audiophile" DAC when the other inputs sound inferior?

Nice price but doesn't seem like this DAC hits out of it's league soundwise.

Philomathean's picture

Hi, Mr. Lavorgna - I've owned an Emotiva XDA-2 for a little over a month and, while I have relayed a few suggestions to the manufacturer, I must say I don't share your reservations (minor though they may be) about its sound quality.

One thing I noticed in your review: you were unable to use Audirvana Plus' direct mode with the XDA-2.  Your experience appears to be idiosyncratic, as I use this combination all the time.  Could this have placed the XDA-2 at a competitive disadvantage with other DACs in your sound quality assessment?

As with other audio components, I'd love to hear audiophiles' impressions in a double-blind comparison, but I suppose the logistics would be daunting.

Finally, I think the XDA-2's physical dimensions (especially its depth) are a benefit, not a drawback, as they make the component stackable. Indeed, I assumed this was Emotiva's intent.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I do not believe that Direct Mode skewed my listening impressions of the XDA-2 mainly because I also listened to other DACs with this same setting, with Direct Mode off.

As with other audio components, I'd love to hear audiophiles' impressions in a double-blind comparison, but I suppose the logistics would be daunting.

Since I work from home and there's usually no one else here but our dogs, double-blind comparisons are not possible (the dogs refuse to take part in DBTs). I also am not convinced of their usefulness in terms of determining listening preferences.

Did you employ double-blind comparisons when auditioning your XDA-2? And if not, are you comfortable with the methods you used to select it?

Philomathean's picture

Thanks for clarifying your use of Direct Mode.  It's certainly fair enough that you listened to other DACs with that option off.  (The XDA-2 review left me with the impression that the lack of Direct Mode was specific to this evaluation.)

And of course you know I didn't and couldn't do a double-blind study myself.  Like most people, I merely do the best I can with my own ears and experience (which includes my season subscription to live performances in the Philadelphia Orchestra's Conductor's Circle).  Does that method make me comfortable?  Somewhat, yes.  But to the extent it doesn't, therein lies the value of an objective professional review.  And as a consumer, I would find most objective the results of a professional double-blind, but I conceded the daunting logistics for audio equipment in my previous post.

I'm curious as to why you are not convinced double-blinds would be useful to consumers, though.  Nothing personal to you or audio reviewers as a whole, but scientific studies have amply documented that people with advance knowledge of price, brand, prestige, etc. tend at least subconsciously to skew their perceptions of quality in the way one might suspect (just Google 'effect of price on perception of quality').  We're only human.

Evaluation of wine, another of my favorite subjects, is a prime example.  See, e.g., http://news.stanford.edu/pr/2008/pr-wine-011608.html .  And while blind tastings may occasionally embarrass professional participants (e.g., http://www.drvino.com/2009/10/02/blind-tasting-bordeaux-2005-robert-parker/ ), I think most consumers find them to be more scientific, trustworthy, and informative than the alternatives.  Although I have to admit that for myself, factors beyond mere "flavor profile" are relevant, such as a wine's expression of specific terroir, growing techniques, historical traditions, how it evolved and pairs with regional cuisine, etc., none of which is normally considered in a double-blind tasting.

Which leads me back to your field of expertise.  Setting aside the aforementioned logistical hurdles, what factors in audio equipment do you think are not well-served by a double-blind method that still relies on one's ears?  Thanks!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...is about enjoyment. Mine, yours and everyone else's. And there is no objective criteria that governs this enjoyment.  Rather, the hi-fi that's used the most is the best, the one that's used the least the worst. The notion that we need to take away elements of this enjoyment - how something looks, how it feels, who made it, how it was made, etc - is to my way of thinking completely missing the point. The idea that we need to test ourselves by removing some of our sensual input (and enjoyment) in order to determine if we prefer A, B or C is artificial. It's not how we'll use and enjoy a hi-fi over time.

So I think the only way you can determine if you made a good choice when buying your hi-fi is simply based on how much you use and enjoy it. And if you use it more because you value the investment you made in it, who cares. If you enjoy it more because you like the way it looks, who cares. Enjoying music isn't a test because there's no right and wrong answer.

Philomathean's picture

Thanks.  I respect your opinion and I'll even illustrate it: Before I bought the Emotiva DAC, I had a nice sound system and a collection of high-res downloads that had been "growing cobwebs."  Now I listen to them all the time with renewed interest.  And that's a good thing.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And I'm very happy to hear you're enjoying your XDA-2.


audiom's picture

Yesterday my finance commitee (aka wife) agreed that I need to get a DAC! Reviewers seem to love the sound of the Micromega MyDAC which lists for the same price as the XDA-2. I'm wondering if you had a chance to listen to the MyDAC, and what you're thoughts are on its sound.

Michael Lavorgna's picture