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FURUTECH ADL ESPRIT DIGITAL PREAMP
Alpha Design Laboratories have released a new headphone amplifier/DAC combo within a familiar chassis. Paul Rigby and Noel Keywood review the Esprit.
A quick look at the new Esprit DAC from Alpha Design Laboratories (ADL being the ‘value for money’ brand of Japanese outfit Furutech) may prompt a double-take. It looks very much like that company’s GT40 combined headphone amp, DAC and phono amp.
But that’s no surprise; ADL is in the process of building a family of products within its recognizably similar chassis – with more to come, apparently. Furutech’s Graeme Coley, speaking from Hong Kong, told me “We wanted the Esprit to be compact in size. There’s a local issue too: in Japanese houses, there’s not a lot of space.”
The Esprit is a direct descendant of the GT40, “We produced that because we had been involved in analogue for some time, working on a phono stage, then we released a pair of high-end USB cables and our engineer got really involved in USB DACs. We decided to combine the three so that people could record their LPs. We later took a survey and found that some people preferred to use their own phono stage because they already had a high quality phono stage. We thought, let’s leave that out of the Esprit and upgrade the DAC which meant that we could incorporate the coaxial and optical inputs and the digital outs on the back”.
Finished in silver or black, the Esprit features an upgraded headphone amplifier, with a full size jack, sourced directly from Furutech (as are all connectors and terminals – bar the optical port), handling loads up to 600 Ohms and using a Texas Instruments TI-TPA6120A2 chip.
Also on the front fascia is an illuminated power switch, source selector switch to choose between Line 1 and 2, Coaxial, USB and Optical for the input, a recording attenuator to prevent overload when recording, and a volume knob, “...that took us a while to choose because we wanted to find a very low noise model”, said Coley. “That was one of the hardest choices to make. We tested fifteen before we settled on that one, an upgraded variant using a higher grade A-Type variable resistor – the GT40 utilised a B-type”.
In fact, for the Esprit, ADL has upgraded just about everything except the Tenor USB chip. Other improvements include the 24bit/192kHz WM8716 Wolfson DAC plus a higher rated ADC (Analogue-to-Digital Convertor) chip, the 24bit/192kHz Cirrus Logic CS5361.
“Removing the phono stage from the initial GT40 specification improved the noise situation while a few specialists in Japan looked at our circuit boards to rework them and lower the noise floor still further”.
On the rear of the chassis are USB for computer connection, for both recording and playback. An Optical output associated with it provides an optional S/PDIF digital connection to the hi-fi system. There are Optical and Coaxial S/PDIF inputs which are switchable between 96kHz and 192kHz (although you can only record at 96kHz). One noticeable quirk is that, to toggle between the 96kHz and 192kHz play options, you need to power down, reselect your chosen sampling rate and then power up again.
You also receive a pair of outputs whose output can be adjusted with the volume control, to connect directly to a preamp or power amp. Two Line-in jacks connect to a phono stage, opening up the possibility to record your LPs onto your computer.
The Esprit uses an external power supply, an unsettling compromise, as Coley admits, “It’s not the perfect situation, we would prefer the power supply to be inside but size restrictions don’t allow it. We did work hard on the external power model, testing many adaptors. We initially planned to have the GT40 powered by USB power only but we found that it didn’t have the oomph we wanted. The Esprit does use a better quality power supply than the GT40, however”.
ADL, being an audiophile-friendly outfit, has decided to keep its options open on the matter, “One of the biggest requests that we have had is to introduce a better power supply for those users who wish to upgrade at a later date. On that question that answer is...well, it’s pending”.
Other improvements over the GT40 include the Esprit’s main coupling capacitors, which now feature audio grade ELNA ROB, and ELNA RFS series capacitors while the DAC Operational Amplifier has been upgraded to a Burr Brown OPA2134 to reduce noise and to improve sound quality.
The Esprit spans 150x141x57mm and weighs in at just 900g.