Audio Reseach REF DAC

Written by on November 16, 2012 in Latest Auditions, News - No comments


In my previous post I mentioned the firsts CelestialSounds have been a part of during the course of October month. Those firsts were not only firsts for us, but also firsts for South-Africa and on a whole quite unique considering the strenuous financial times we live in. The subject of this report is none other than the exciting new Audio Research Reference DAC and its recent installation into a very fortunate client’s already massively impressive music and video system. It is the first unit of its kind to have hit these shores and again we are proud to be the first to have initialized its commissioning in one of the top systems we’ve been building with a dedicated client over the course of three years. We decided on the REF DAC as logical upgrade for a few carefully considered reasons of which the most important one is the fact that only digital sources is being utilized. Having been an existing REF5 owner the doctor wanted a line stage equal or better than the REF5SE, but without all those line level inputs going to waste as was the case with his REF5. In essence a simultaneous upgrade to the digital sources was a nobel idea, but not absolutely essential considering the exsisting DAC8’s superb performance. What we got in the REF DAC proved beyond expectation since the stunning DAC it has on-board proved even better than the circuit of an established digital reference, the Audio Research REF CD8. Losing a set of analogue interconnects in the process of a combined unit also gained valuable ground in sonic terms. All things considered, REF DAC proved having all the right answers.

The Audio Research Reference DAC in very basic terms is a Reference 5SE line stage preamplifier minus its line level inputs, but with the best quality digital to analogue converter Audio Research could muster put in its place. Only digital inputs on the REF DAC then. Inside the unit the layout is very similar to the REF5SE preamplifier. It even employs the same new tasty Teflon injected coupling capacitors from the 5SE first having seen the light of day in the cost-no-object 40th Anniversary Reference preamplifier and now seemingly carried over into every new product release from Audio Research. The REF DAC undoubtedly makes sense in a world increasingly embracing new digital frontier after the other. With high resolution digital-audio music-files only a click or two of the mouse away, the REF DAC will accept and decode those jam-packed data-files of all known formats into the purest of analogue sounds. Best of all REF DAC could do all this without the need of a dedicated music server. You see, REF DAC will read and decode straight from hard-disc drives sitting on your network either via fixed LAN or Wi-Fi. Internet radio direct to your reference system? Done. REF DAC does this too!

From a pure sonic perspective we are not using the network-drive music-server option in this application, but we did activate the internet radio and I must admit the quality was pretty impressive even via Wi-Fi. As dedicated audiophile source we opted to simultaneously upgrade the client’s existing PC running iTunes to an Aurender S10 reference music server. With the Aurender’s purest 110ohm AES/EBU digital output fed directly into the REF DAC via Transparent Audio’s Premium digital link, it is not unlike listening to the ultimate CD player I’ve ever laid ears on. Standard AIFF ripped 16/44.1 material simply sounds wholesomely complete and utterly refined . With higher resolution 24/96 FLAC downloads the better quality recordings elevates the sense of realism to another level all together and it is in this configuration where the Aurender’s strengths combined with the REF DAC’s extraordinary decoding really comes into its own. Well recorded acoustic material sounds as good as if not better than the best vinyl…

Now that is quite a statement coming from someone known for persuing vinyl to the extent that I do! And yes, there I’ve said it… If you can’t beat them, join them and with the REF DAC in circulation I will probably be the next in line to take the plunge to an all digital setup defining the term user-friendly. I just love having my favourite music so incredibly accessible.

The Audio Research Reference DAC makes so much sense in a world where digital audio is only going from strength to strength. I absolutely love the sound of the CD8 and have long wished for a way to access that stunning 24bit DAC section with its zero feedback vacuum-tube output to feed high-res files from a music server through it. In the REF DAC we got more than what we bargained for. It simply extended way further any expectations we had from Audio Research having already set such high standards with the DAC8. DAC8 in itself is quite an achievement, but it lacks the final cutting edge of that beautiful zero-feedback valve output stage. For those familiar with the brand, think CD5 vs CD8. DAC8 vs REF DAC is a similar comparison, just much more elevated in its overall performance on all levels.

Expect to see a whole lot more from the Reference DAC in months to come as it finds its way into more and more note worthy luxury systems.

About the Author

Audio Engineer, Critic & Retailer twenty years in the making.

Leave a Comment