Published: 3. July 2013, No. 110
If you think about it for a minute you will realize that there are two ways new companies might take, when entering market for the first time. The first one, I would call it a 'safer' one, bases on small steps – start with a relatively simple, offering great value product, and after initial success start to offer more elaborate, more expensive ones and climb up the ladder, trying to squeeze somewhere between companies who's been already there for some time and are not too willing to give up any space to newcomers. So the latter have to fight they way up the ladder and it takes a lot of time, money and effort, and some luck too. The second way might seems easier – why not start from the top? It is surely a much more risky way to start a business, but on the other hand you know what they say – no risk, no gain. There is but one 'small' catch, if you want to chose the second strategy – you need a very special, innovative product that would find its place almost automatically if not on the very top, than at least close to it, allowing you to skip several steps of the market ladder, and not to fight with more experienced market players.
Two examples might not be enough to constitute a rule, but the fact is that two French companies come to mind that in the last few years proved that this second strategy is feasible, and they both succeeded, although for now to a different extend. The first one is Devialet, that came almost out of nowhere and made so much fuss that now most audiophiles at least now the brand if not the product itself. It is a highly appreciated, and awarded product (Premier Air I mean) that quickly made its way to a high-end category. The second company might not have collected so many awards, brand awareness might not be that great (at least yet), but having existed on the market for a even shorter period of time (than Devialet) it made quite some fuss too. This company is called TotalDAC. It's a small, French company, founded just 3 years ago, in 2010, by Vincent Brient (first two photos are: Mont Saint-Michel – a famous place near his hometown, and his listening room with horn speakers built into a wall). Vincent, like many other well know audio designers, started to build some audio equipment while still a very young man, during his studies. Later he worked with, and learned a lot from, Mr John Westlake, a guy behind well known products like Pink Triangle Da Capo D/A converter, Audiolab's M-DAC and Cambridge Audio Magic DAC – these products should be familiar to many audiophiles. Vincent himself started his work with active digital crossovers. Achieving satisfactory results took him years and when he finally succeeded he focused his creative attention on digital-to-analogue converters. He auditioned most commercially available DAC chips and found none that would satisfy him completely, so he decided... to create his own. When he finished it the final effect was so good that also some of his friends wanted to have their own units so Vincent founded a company that designs, builds and sells D/A converters – he named it TotalDAC. As already mentioned the D/A converter created by Vincent Brient doesn't use any commercial DAC chip. Instead he uses a discrete R2R ladder, and that places this product in quite a respectful company of products from top brands like EMM Labs, or MSB. There is one more very important feature of this DAC you should be aware of right away – this is a „non-oversampling DAC” (NOS DAC), so it does not use any oversampling, and of course that's a choice it's designer consciously made pursuing top performance. Vincent underlines one more fact – when he designed TotalDAC the only goal he had in mind was performance regardless the costs and a final price of the product.
At the moment there are few models of DAC available – the one I tested is for now a top one, called d1-Dual. The other ones are: d1-Single, which is a simplified version of d1-Dual with a single resistor ladder par channel (Dual has two of them), with no balanced outputs, and not so advanced USB input. This year during Munich High End exhibition TotalDAC presented two newest products that should be available for purchase within next few months. Whoever attended presentation in their room had a chance to listen to prototype versions of d1-Tube DAC (name is self-explanatory – output stage sports tubes in SE mode), and a d1-Server, which is a music server, of course. You can still buy an older model of DAC called A1, and a digital re-clocker that is supposed, according the manufacturer, to improve a sound of any digital transport (including also a computer). Even thought TotalDAC's website is a bit shy of information about digital crossovers, in fact Vincent offers 69-bit active ones that can be integrated with D/A converter.
Recordings used during listening sessions (a selection)
- Georges Bizet, Carmen, RCA Red Seal 74321 39495 2, CD i FLAC.
- Chie Ayado, Life, Ewe B00005EZRV, CD/FLAC
- Stevie Ray Vaughan, Texas flood, epic/LEGACY EX65870, CD i FLAC.
- Isao Suzuki, Blow up, Three Blind Mice B000682FAE, CD i FLAC.
- AC/DC, Back in black, SONY B000089RV6, CD.
- Vivaldi, Four seasons, Giulano Carmingnola, Sony Classical SK 51352, CD.
- Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin, Atlantic/Warner Music Japan WPCR-11611, CD/FLAC.
- Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones, Live At The Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981, Eagle Rock Entertainment B0085KGHI6, CD/FLAC.
- Buddy Guy, Blues singer, Silvertone 01241-41843-2, CD/FLAC.
- Pink Floyd, Wish you were here, EMI Records Japan TOCP-53808, CD i FLAC.
- Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11, EMI Music Poland 5651702, CD i FLAC.
- Peter Gabriel, New blood, EMI 6785522, CD/FLAC.
- Dire Straits, Communique, Vertigo 800 052-2, CD/FLAC
TotalDAC is one of these few audio companies that (at least at the current stage) don't really work with audio magazines – I mean you can't get a DAC from Vincent for a review. Any reviewer who wants to review one of his devices has to buy it (with 10 days return option), or borrow it from some owner. It would be great if I could afford the first option, but in a real world I had to use the second option – Adam Mokrzycki was kind enough to spare a TotalDAC for some time so that I could review it – an official 'thank you!' is in place.
Even though a d1 is already highly acclaimed device I'd like to start with... a little complaint, I hope you don't mind? The device is very well made, and while whether you like its look or not is up to you, I can say that I really like the design. Solid, rigid metal casing must make a good impression, the acrylic front too. There is a small 'but' though – if you want it to stay 'pretty' you need to keep it in a 'dust-free' environment. Surely all devices catch dust on the outside, and so does TotalDAC here, so you need to clean it once a day, but the real problem is that dusts gets also behind the acrylic plate (unless it got there while this unit was actually made), and to get rid of it seems impossible. Underneath acrylic plate there is a very nice OLED display, that shining nice and bright backlits dust very clearly... OK, it's a small thing, maybe if you keep your room cleaner than I keep mine, or you live outside polluted city center you don't even notice such problem. End of complaint. Wasn't so bad, was it?
The converter under review sports four digital inputs: USB (asynchronous), coaxial S/PDIF (it is possible to order it with BNC instead of coax), optical TOSLINK, AES/EBU, and analogue outputs: balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA). Additionally back panel sports also a headphone output (6,3 mm), and power inlet, that is bound to be connected with external power supply. For customers with amplifiers equipped only with RCA inputs manufacturer offers (paid separately) his own XLR/RCA adapters that allow to use XLR outputs and thus to utilize a better performance of the latter (using dual ladder not a single one as RCA outputs do). There are no buttons or knobs to operate this device manually – the only option is a remote control – the unit came with a standard one made by Philips. Apart from classic functions like volume control and input selection, this remote allows you to operate also additional features: phase polarity (PHASE), possibility to disconnect earth (EARTH), turning display on/off (DISPLAY), non-oversampling DAC compensation filter that can be activated or deactivated (TREBLE FIR – when off, DAC is strictly non-oversampling one), and a highpass bass filter (BASS BW). Each of this functions/features allows user to slightly adjust sound to his taste. Don't expect some huge changes in a performance, rather noticeable ones, but since they are just a remote's button away go ahead and find the best setting for yourself.
After finding best settings (for particular system/room/personal preferences) I could start my auditions. TotalDAC d1-Dual did not impress me much at the beginning. There was no „wow!” effect, it did not change my perception of the world in general, or of well know recordings in particular, nothing shocked me from the first minute, nothing really surprised me. And whatever you're thinking right now it was a good thing! With very few exceptions like the device from another musical dimension I reviewed recently – Kondo Souga – majority of high-end devices don't make huge entrances, unforgettable first impressions and so on. Why is that, you ask. Because they usually present music in an... accurate way – it sounds how I expect it to, there is no surprise, everything is in the right place, and such presentation is... well, natural. Should I expect anything else, or anything less from a high-end device? Music sounds simply like it should – so when I hear it that way I start to wonder is it really possible to play this music in another way? (yeah, in cases like these my memory doesn't serve me too well, and I somehow forget about many devices I listened to, that did play it in another, not so natural, ergo worse way). So how d1-Dual fit in all my experiences, how did it actually sound like? In short – sound was coherent, smooth, natural, nothing stood out, no obvious weaknesses to this presentation I was aware of. What I got from my speakers was a serenity, lack of any nervosity I mean. If I was describing a man (or a woman) I would call him/her very confident of his/hers ability of delivering top performance regardless of what I'd thrown at him/her. The French DAC seemed to be in a perfect control of everything in every recording. It dealt equally well with fabulous Chie Ayado (I have to admit that until recently I didn't know this amazing vocalist), or Muddy Waters with Rolling Stones, but also with my favorite recording of Carmen, or crazy rock and roll from Australian veterans of AC/DC. Not until I served TotalDAC with some not so well recorded music, like U2 albums, I fully realized that d1 differentiates recordings very well, so when it was forced to play less good pieces/albums it pointed it out immediately, refusing to make them sound any nicer than they really were.
This serenity, self-confidence of TotalDAC was build on several elements. One of them being a size of soundstage, clearly different each time depending on what was caught in the recording, the other being how well organized the soundstage was, how palpable and three-dimensional. That's still not all – it presented also an impressive resolution and selectivity that both contributed to the great insight to each recording, that allowed me to follow all events in the back of the soundstage almost as easily as these in the front.
No part of the frequency range was emphasized, or in other words the frequency response seemed flat. That's what gave me an impression of a very natural sound – many other devices to achieve the same have to 'tweak' midrange a bit, warming it up slightly. Here natural sound came from it being neutral, which often creates an impression of a slightly 'cold' sound, but here it was not a case. A bit cold sound is also what one often gets from devices offering a very analytical sound, great insight into recordings, that are able to get to the inner layers of sound that other 'warmer' devices usually can't. TotalDAC is an analytical D/A converter, I have no doubts about it, but since it doesn't cross certain line, it doesn't sound 'cold' and it doesn't mess with music's inner-coherency. It is still the music that comes first not the sound – that's what makes this device so special, you can flow with the music enjoying it, experiencing it, or, if you like, you can analyze even tiniest details, cause they are all there for you to reach for them. That's what makes a difference between great audio devices and those just good ones. The latter usually offer either good musicality or analytical skills – if you want both usually only high-end devices can offer you that. And these keep proper balance between being very musical and highly analytical without crossing either of lines, offering listener a choice of what he wants at the moment – experience some wonderful music, or analyze sound, musician's technique, sound engineer’s job an so on. TotalDAC leaves a choice to the listener and is fully capable of satisfying both needs, and it is really good at it.
Today it might not be something special anymore, it's rather a must for all digital devices aspiring to a high-end class (well, even to a solid hi-fi class actually). Let's say 5-6 years ago almost all digital players could be still easily recognized by their sonics as there were some digital artifacts in the sound, especially in the treble. You could hear some brightness, some graining which all lead to some level of harshness of the sound. Today, even though I still believe that best analogue systems perform slightly better than the best digital ones, the significant gap between these performances is much, much smaller. What a good digital player (CD/SACD/DAC) is able to deliver is amazing and TotalDAC, no doubts, belongs among the best. The aforementioned: serenity, coherency, smoothness of the presentation, plus something that, because of a lack of better word, I would describe as a delicacy of the sound, makes listening to this device a very pleasant experience. But on the other hand, unlike many other devices, that achieve similar effect by warming sound up, rounding it up and thus losing some details, clarity an so on, d1-Dual offers great resolution, lots and lots of details, impressive range extension at both ends, very nice dynamic range, clarity and transparency, and an accurate dosage of analytical skills, that allows you to study the recording, but without losing emotions, magic of the music. The latter elements are key ones if you want to live, experience music and not just listen to it. Some designers make their DACs as analytical as possible and that gives listener a great insight into the recording, overwhelming amounts of details, most aspects of the sound presented very distinctly, but it is more like dividing recording into basic elements and forgetting about the essence of the music as an art. A clou of a top performance is finding an accurate balance between both approaches to a music presentation – you need both, a proper insight into music, and a good share of emotions, ambiance and so on. Only than you really know what a composer and/or vocalist/musician tried to express when creating/playing/singing a particular piece of music. TotalDAC is one of the „good guys” that does just that.
As I already mentioned one of my recent musical discoveries was an amazing vocalist, that for whatever reason never had come to my attention before – Ms Chie Ayado. Ms Ayado is an incredible singer with amazing, deep, powerful, 'black' voice. There is the same kind of passion in her voice, the same 'putting heart, soul, and mind into the singing' that I love so much about Etta James. All her recordings were made in Japan which ensures outstanding sound quality too. TotalDAC delivered an abundance of details, wonderfully presented a timbre and texture of her voice, a convincing 3D soundstage, with instruments precisely placed on it, and each of them having sharply outlined body. But there was also plenty of emotions, passion in vocalist voice, astounding palpability that added even more intimacy to this presentation. All that made listening to Ms Ayado's recordings an extraordinary, realistic experience. Similar passion, tones of emotions I found also in my favorite Leontyna Price's performance in Carmen, and not only in her and other singers voices, but also in a characteristic, very 'von Karajan's like' orchestra performance. Such a complex, dense music fully benefited from all the virtues of this D/A converter – clarity, transparency, great resolution, a very good selectivity and precision of the presentation. All that allowed me to truly enjoy this fabulous interpretation of a famous opera as it is a very demanding piece of music. There is a lot going on on the stage with few vocalists, sometimes even two choirs singing and walking around in a distance, an all that backed up with highly dynamic performance of the orchestra lead by von Karajan. Each of this elements must be presented precisely, in proper balance with the others, so they can all come together and create this remarkable performance. To be honest, as I use this recording a lot during my tests, I've got a bit tired of it, but TotalDAC allowed me to enjoy every second of it, reminding again me why I appreciate this particular version of famous opera so much.
Everything comes with a cost. If you have a DAC that gives you such a good insight into recordings, delivers all the details in such a clear, transparent way a cost comes when you start to listen to some 'non-audiophile' recordings, like most of rock ones. I don't mean that TotalDAC doesn't like rock, but that when it comes to this music genre it is, in general, not as well recorded as jazz or classic music. I mentioned U2 already – I really like this band but I listen to their music only in my car, and not because I have such a good stereo there, but rather because I have a poor one, so quality of recordings doesn't really matter (so much). At home, when it comes to rock, I listen mostly to old, mainstream bands like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, and while they (and some others back in the days) did a much better job in studio (I mean sound engineers did) the quality of these recordings is still not necessarily what we would call today an 'audiophile' one. With a source as detailed, transparent and precise as TotalDAC I could hear all the imperfections really well. Obviously it is NOT a downside of this device, it is its feature you need to be aware of. You will love it as long as you listen to high quality, 'audiophile' recordings, but you won't be that happy when you hear some of your favorites that were not recorded perfectly. I wanted to mention that to make it clear for you – don't expect TotalDAC to deliver miracles. It will not make poor recordings sound nice, it will not hide recording's weaknesses, or do anything to make it sound better than it really is. It will not do the opposite either – it will not emphasize these weaknesses, won't make these the most important element of the presentation (unless the recording is really, really poor), it will take weak and strong elements of each recording and present them with equal intensity. So in case of some 'not-so-perfect' recordings the upsides plus artistic value will prevail and you will enjoy it very much, in some downsides will take lead and soon you will throw these out no matter how much you like the music itself.
TotalDAC d1-dual is a remarkable device. Taking into consideration that it was created by a small company that doesn't have resources nor experience that could compare to those of „big dogs” like dCS, MSB, or some others I am most impressed. A clear, neutral and natural, coherent and smooth sound with a reasonable dosage of analytical skills presents all the magic of silver discs and music files. I mean it will present the magic if it is there. It won't turn some far-from-perfect recordings into unforgettable spectacles, so if you plan to buy it remember that most likely you'll be forced to get rid of some part of your music collection. Is it a bad thing? Well, that is for you to decide, but by definition we are all searching for high fidelity, are we not? And that's what TotalDAC d1-dual delivers.
TotalDAC d1-dual is currently a top model of a D/A converter in French company's portfolio. It is a non-oversampling (NOS) DAC. It sports a rigid, nice looking, metal casing with an acrylic front panel, with a very nice OLED display underneath. There are no push buttons, nor knobs on the front panel as the device is controlled only with a remote control. There are four digital inputs – asynchronous USB (based on XMOS chip), coaxial S/PDIF, optical TOSLINK, and AES/EBU. There are three analogue outputs – balanced XLR, unbalanced RCA, and a headphone output (for 6,3mm jack). D1-dual doesn't use any commercially available DAC chip. Instead its designer decided to use a discrete R2R ladder developed in house, that sports 200 Vishay Foil 0,01% resistors per stereo channel. d1-Dual is a fully balanced design with a discrete class A transistor output stage. Whole circuit is mounted on two PCBs – the upper one is a R2R ladder, the lower sport inputs and outputs. In order to minimize distortions designer decided to put a power supply with a large transformer in a separate enclosure. For the same purpose there is an option that allows user to switch a display off, and also all unused digital inputs are being automatically turned off. Manufacturer offers additional option – a 69-bit active digital crossover can be integrated into DAC – that's why you can see a places for additional outputs on the back panel of d1.
A remote control, apart from basic functions of volume control and input selector, allows to use some additional features of this DAC: you can change an absolute phase (PHASE), disconnect grounding (EARTH), turn off a display (DISPLAY), turn on/off a non-oversampling DAC compensation filter (TREBLE FIR), turn on/off a 12dB/oct high pass filter to attenuate sub bass.
Specifications (according to manufacturer)
- 192KHz asynchronous Xmos USB, optical, RCA and AES-EBU digital inputs, selected from a remote control
- 44.1KHz, 48KHz, 88.2KHz, 96KHz, 176.4KHz and 192KHz, 16 to 24 bit formats supported on all inputs except 96KHz max for optical input
- USB input compatible with Jplay in 24 bit "extreme hibernate" mode
- 3.3Vrms max RCA, 6.6Vrms max XLR analog output and 32ohm-600ohm 3.3Vrms max headphone amplifier
- digital volume control, adjusted by a remote control, value displayed on an OLED display
- phase polarity selected by remote control
- non-oversampling DAC compensation filter activated or deactivated by remote control
- display switched off by remote control or automatic
- all unused inputs are completely disconnected (including the ground) to keep the optimum noise floor even when several sources are connected
- R2R DAC technology using 0.01% VAR Bulk Metal Foil resistors Vishay Foil Resistors, 200 resistors per stereo channel
- dual DAC option included, using 2 DACs per channel for a 100% balanced DAC. Upgrades the XLR output only. A special XLR to RCA is available as an optional extra to get the dual DAC sound to an amplifier with RCA inputs
- class A discrete transistor output stage
- external PSU
- aluminum and PMMA enclosure with massive pure copper anti-vibration plate
- power consumption: 21 W
- dimensions: 110 x 360 x 290 mm (HxWxD)
- PSU dimensions: 65x122x180 mm
- weight: 6,5 kg