Musical Fidelity V-DAC II

Device Type: Upsampling D/A Convertor
Input: (2) S/PDIF (Coax and TosLink), Async USB
Output: 1 pair RCA
Dimensions: 95mm W x 40mm H x 170mm D (6 2/3" x 3 3/4" x 1 2/3")
Weight: 350g (12 1/4 oz)
Availability: Online and through Authorized Dealers
Price: $349.00
Website: www.musicalfidelity.com

It’s Easy
As Sam Tellig said in his review of the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II in the January 2012 issue of Stereophile, there really shouldn’t be much uncertainty or confusion surrounding computer audio and high resolution downloads. Oh wait, here’s what Sam actually wrote, “There’s so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads.” OK, we don't see eye to eye.

Sam also wonders/worries, “Which hi-rez format will win out? How do you store the downloads you’ve bought (Easy. Don’t buy them.) How do you access them? Will digital rights management (DRM) cramp your style, or data storage fees for cloud computing crumple your wallet?”

I can see how, if you take a bunch of computer audio terms and throw them into your word processor and spit them out willy-nilly, you and anyone reading what you wrote might be confused. But connecting a USB DAC to a computer and playing music through it is straightforward for most people who use a computer regularly, which means it’s fairly straightforward for most people without an AARP card (they want me to have one but I keep throwing their letters into the garbage unopened). And the farther away you are from getting that letter, the more comfortable you are around computers, computing, mobile devices, and downloads. It's a matter of evolution.

Of course as with all things audiophile, you can choose to complicate computer audio to your heart’s delight in a quest for better but for those who simply want to play music on their computer through an outboard DAC, life is simple and as time goes by it is also increasingly rewarding for a decreasing investment in time and money.


Pictured with the older-style V-Link (cha cha cha).

The V-DAC II’s most obvious change from the old V-DAC is a formal looking face-lift. Gone is the white feisty font over black and in its place sleek brushed aluminum is adorned with all-business black lettering. Inside, the USB input gained the ability to handle up to 24-bit/96kHz in Asynchronous USB mode where the old version was stuck at adaptive mode 16/48. The V-DAC II shares the same chipset as the upper-scale Musical Fidelity M1 DAC: the Texas Instruments Burr-Brown SRC4392 sample rate converter and the Texas Instruments Burr-Brown DSD1796 D/A chip.

The Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, or MK II which I’ve seen it called but not on the Musical Fidelity website or on the unit itself or in the manual where it remains the V-DAC II, is like its bigger brother, an upsampling DAC. The V-DAC II takes your incoming music file and converts it to 24-bit/192kHz regardless of its original state (unless it’s already 24-bit/192kHz in which case it simply passes through). The V-DAC II inputs include Coax (24/192), Toslink (24/96) and Asynchronous USB (24/96) and outputs through a pair of single-ended RCA jacks. There’s a small toggle switch on the input side to select your input of choice and a 1.3mm DC power socket on the other side to plug in the included wall wart power supply. There are two LEDs one blue one green, the former indicating power (there’s no way to turn the V-DAC II off unless you unplug it) and the latter indicating that you are properly connected to your source when illuminated. And they manage to pack all of this into a package roughly the size of a fat paperback book (or smaller and fatter than your average e-reader).

Of course you have to tell your computer and possibly your media player of choice to play your music through the V-DAC II but the PDF manual available for download from the Musical Fidelity website tells you how to do the computer part (do you think anyone will have a problem deciding where to store that PDF download or how to play it back?) Once you’ve accomplished the physical and virtual connections, you are ready to listen. I did so mainly through my MacBook Pro using iTunes/Pure Music v1.84 using both Toslink and USB (via an AudioQuest Carbon USB cable), connected to the Leben CS-300XS/DeVore Fidelity The Nines.

It’s Fun
Let’s not beat around the bush—I agree with Sam in that the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II is fun to listen to. I played all sorts of music including ripped CDs, CD-quality FLAC downloads and high-rez downloads up to 24-bit/176.4kHz. However, the V-DAC II only saw 24/96 and lower resolutions coming out of my MacBook Pro. The reason for this is twofold; the V-DAC II’s USB and Toslink inputs are limited to 24/96 (as is the MacBook Pro’s Toslink output) and Pure Music takes care of downsampling any higher-rez files prior to passing them along to the V-DAC II. The funny thing that happened on the way to the hi-fi is the V-DAC II then upsampled everything to 24/192.

Now that may sound complicated but try describing the journey a glass of wine makes from point A (in the glass) to point B (digestively) and you’ll quickly realize we manage to do and enjoy all kinds of things even though we may not know exactly what’s going on on the inside. The more important part is the music coming out of the V-DAC II and it sounds mostly unfiltered like a fine homemade wine. I say mostly because the V-DAC II does have a hardish edge and that edge resides mainly around the upper frequencies. Bass also lacks some weight and heft tipping music toward zippy and fast. To stick with the wine analogy, things ultimately sound a tad under-ripe.

Some people point to the power supply as the V-DAC II’s Achilles heel and online retailers like Audio Advisor sell the V-DAC II pre-packaged with an outboard regulated power supply. Musical Fidelity also offers an add-on external power supply (V-PSU II $249). Perhaps this would iron out some of that harshness and thinness I heard but I did not have an opportunity to test this theory. I know, another potential Giant Killer opportunity missed but the recently reviewed Musical Fidelity M1 DAC (the new one) certainly adds some heft and finesse along with its internal regulated power supply.

If there’s one thing some audiophiles love, it’s the idea of great sound on the cheap. It’s as if you’re beating all those people who’ve spent more than you did (or more than you can afford to) at their own game. The problem with this thought process is that’s not the game. Rather the game is we buy hi-fi gear in order to enjoy music and whoever does so with the stuff they own is the real winner. And here’s the kicker—regardless of how much money was spent.

Nothing’s Free
Overall I found the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II eminently listenable and enjoyable which, and here’s the funny part, considering its price makes me smile. That's because I can enjoy a bargain as much as the next guy and the idea that you can buy a device for $349, connect it to your computer on one end and your hi-fi on the other and play music that’ll make your CD player weep with envy is cause for celebration. We are living in a Golden Age of musical enjoyment both in terms of the abundance of music available and the means to play it back and that holds if we’re living on Wall Street, Main Street or On Golden Pond.

COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

... who is far from AARP eligibility and has publicly expressed some "hate" towards computers in general --- makes Sam look like an IT consultant by comparison. 

That's NOT a dig nor a criticism actually, just noting that the "comfort thing" might not be generational, and that it should be clear you and I agree very much with the spirit and empirical evidence of which you cite.

Nice perspetive on the MkII, er V-DACII and thank you for it.

While I'm here and we have yet another DAC limited to 96kHz at the USB port I need a refresher on USB's sample rate limitation. I didn't recall the "why's" necessarily mentioned in the 24/192 USB DAC list.

(from memory, i.e. prone to error):

• With recent iterations of OS X, 384kHz is possible with no drivers. Thought I'd read that over at Channel D's site?

• With Windows 7 you still need either a hardware driver or software plugin to get past 96kHz ?

DACs often have different limitations based on input, and the one with the lower limit is the one most likely (by a wide margin) to be used in computer audio. Despite any apparent angst or misguided worry, I readily concede sample rate is NOT the end-all, be-all. But I want to know what the hold up is.

The speculative questions:

1) Are audio companies loathe to sell something that needs a driver or otherwise differentiate their product's capability and functionality for what's outside their control, namely the user's OS?

2) Do USB receiver chips that can handle more than 96kHz cost a lot more, particularly for the world of perfectionist audio?

3) Is there any way I can pin this on a dirty politician, failed deity or my [dirty and failed] neighbor?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

In terms of 24/192, check out this page on Wavelength’s site for a nice overview.

But the Reader’s Digest version is you need USB Audio Class 2.0 for 24/192 (USB 1.0 supports up to 24/96):

MAC - 24/192 (up to 32/384) runs natively via USB 2.0 / Snow Leopard v 10.6.4 or higher. No extra drivers needed. Plug and play.

Windows does not have a native USB Audio Class 2.0 driver (!) so you need to load a third party driver. Specifically which driver is mainly dependent on your OS version, DAC/Soundcard and/or your personal take on ASIO v WASAPI.

Regarding your “speculative questions”, 1) good question and I’ll see if can get an answer from some manufacturers, 2) Hmm “a lot more”? I cannot answer that one either but my guess is the higher the retail price of the DAC, the less the cost of the d/a chip matters ;-), 3) Yes to all 3 although blaming a politician is certainly the safest bet.

Qatar Monfils's picture

Sorry brother...have to disagree.

Based on your opinion that there is a hard edge in the upper ranges and a lack of bass weight, I would wonder as to your listening ability or call in to question your reference system.

I just bought the V-DAC II and I also own a reference quality DAC that costs  than 10 times more and I can honestly say you are off the mark.

Also, where are the comparisons to the other DACs I hope you had on hand. What is your reference?

Qatar

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I'll agree to disagree.

ecrimjr's picture

smileyThis isn't a rigourous defense.  I don't know Sam Tellig or any of the writers of stereophile but I have been a subscriber and reader of that publication for almost 30 years now.  I did of course just get my AARP card this year and like many audiophiles who grew up on vinyl and then included CD/digital audio, I have struggled with the transition to computer audio and the implications of not owning a physical piece of software that you could do with what you want after you bought it.  It is to this group that I believe Sam Tellig was referring to.  And I do think that that group is large and well resourced to spend money on the right equipment to do the job well.  We also are not willing to compromise sound for convenience so the questions that Tellig and others raise are almost always intended with the highest sonic standards in mind.  

There is almost nothing I enjoy better than spending several hours up at night listening to my music and all of the nuances that are available through a high quality sound system.  As a person with limited resources I think the issue is also best sound for the dollar.  i.e. value.  The market in computer audio is growing and I have stumbled on to your web site.  I actually can't remember how I found it but I read here because I need to know more about resources for high quality digital music.  I appreciated the evaluation of the musical fidelity piece.  My theory on DA converters is that upsampling almost never sounds as good for some reason.  When I had a PS Audio dac that had a choice between upsampling or not, not sounded better to me.  On other dacs that I have heard that up sample versus dacs that don't the dacs that don't seem to sound better.  I am not technically profiecient to know why my guess is increase error from upsampling or increase digital jitter.  Anyway, take it easy on us older guys as well as stereophile writers who are also perhaps older as I do think there is a lot of confusion still out there.  The fun part is trying things out till you figure out what works.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I was really teasing Sam for making computer audio sound unnecessarily complicated. The fact is with computer audio we have access to tons of high quality music some of it free (and legal) coupled with a more robust means of playback as compared to CD and we can do this by leveraging the computer most of us already own. Win, win, win.

I suppose I was mainly feeling a bit cranky which seems to come with that AARP card that I have yet to accept ;-)

rbeverjr's picture

The Musical Fidelity V-DACII is a good unit and an excellent value.  Alone, it sounds much superior to the vast majority of computer sound cards.  In some ways, it sounds better than the typical CD-player too, when combined with a properly set up Foobar2000 or JRiver Media Center (computer software applications).  The treble is not “edgy.”  I have no idea what the original reviewer was referring to.  As typical of Musical Fidelity, the sound is sweet and clear.  The Musical Fidelity sound has often been described as “tube-like,” and it is definitely not fatiguing.  Unfortunately, compared to the better Musical Fidelity products (such as my modified MF CD-Pre24), it does lack some resolution.  This slight lack of resolution is also apparent compared to a stock E-Sound CD-E5 Signature Edition.  There is resolution, just not as much as excellent CD players.  The original poster was entirely correct that there is a significant lack of bass.  That is a deficiency that needs a fix.  Power supplies are available from $25-$250 or more.  I was amazed how much difference a Pyramid PS-3KX power supply ($25) made! The bass was largely restored.  The two before mentioned CD players still sound better, but the difference is slight.  I would say that the lack in ultimate audiophile sound quality is worth it when considering the convenience of accessing my private library of thousands of songs with a few clicks of the mouse in the JRiver Media Center.  For $350+$25, the sound quality is astonishing to me.  The other great thing about this unit is its portability.  It can be used for computers and other audio equipment.  It can be used on multiple computers (one at a time, of course); so, I use it at work and at home.  This makes it a bargain compared to buying an expensive computer audio card.  Furthermore, the computer audio card has to deal with a very electrically noisy environment (inside of the computer), that this unit does not.  I suggest giving this DAC a try, if you are interested in a portable DAC.

My comparisons included the V-DACII with a stock (cheap) USB cable, JRiver Media Center 16, Pyramid PS-3KX power supply, some good RCA cables, Stax Lambda Pro System (electrostatic ear phones with its solid state amp), and the E-Sound CD-E5 Signature Edition CD-player.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

On that note, I would point you to Sam Tellig’s current review of the Pangea P-100 regulated power supply in the current issue of Stereophile. In it, he talks about the sonic improvements the P-100 offers the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II where he states (among many other improvements), “Moreover, the Pangea P-100 took a certain electronic edge off the music-voices and strings especially.” He also says, “Piano recordings became more immediate: the attacks and decays of notes.”

I would, and of course I would, suggest that these noted improvements match pretty closely with what I describe in my review. The important thing to note is the V-DAC II has a 'voice' as do all audio components and some may like it, others may not. It is my intent to try to describe this voice as accurately as possible and I believe I've done so.

In terms of comparisons, one that seemed especially relevant was the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC since it uses a similar circuit and adds an improved regulated power supply. Which is why I offered this comparison in this review as well as a link to my review of the M1.

Devil Doc's picture

I bought one of these on Sam's recommendation. I also feel the same way he does. I'm not interested in Hi Rez down loads. They're like beer; you can't really own them. I require a hard copy. I like tangible things, like gold, silver etc. in my safety deposit box, not a bunch of ones and zeros I can't touch.

I was impressed at how simple this device was to install. I just plugged it in and it worked. Pandora sounds great. I've yet to compare it to my CD player. We'll see.

 

Doc

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And the RIAA certainly believes you can own downloads.

But on a more serious note, I think this is mainly a generational issue. I prefer buying physical media when its an option but our daughters do not even consider buying physical media, ever. This holds for their freinds as well.

The important point that you raise is how easy and relatively inexpensive it can be to get good sounding music from a computer. When coupled with the vast musical resource the Internet represents, it becomes clear that a CD player is a completely different animal.

aeynon's picture

I'm seriously old, but a "modern" computer like a currect Mac is easy enough.  I left vinyl when I heard a good enough CD player (McIntosh), but never enjoyed recorded music as much.  I will, however NEVER go back to the hassle and noise of vinyl.

 

So, HD downloads and a good DAC should do the trick - best of both worlds without compromise!  DAC reviews, computer audio info, and serious comparisons with vinyl make me eagerly look forward to each month's Stereophile.

 

Thanks,  Al

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Represent the best of both worlds for me.

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